Tag Archive | Memory

A white homo devil reflects on years of so-called free speech

Not the only time that the hateful Uncle Sam sign denigrated gay people...

Not the only time that the hateful Uncle Sam sign denigrated gay people…

Let’s talk about the hateful Uncle Sam sign near Interstate 5 in Washington state, in a community called Napavine (which is just south of the larger town of Chehalis). The sign went up near the interstate a few years before my family moved to southwest Washington in the mid seventies. For just a bit over 10 years I lived about 40 miles from this sign. Additionally, for just short of 35 years, I have had to drive past this racist, sexist, sectarian, homophobic billboard whenever I travel across the state.

There are NO billboards in Russia!

From The Daily Chronicle of Lewis County.

It began when the Washington state legislature amended the existing Highway Advertising Control Act in the late 1960s, which placed several restrictions on what sorts of signs/billboard/et cetera could be placed within the line of sight of people traveling on roads funded at least in part by state tax payer money. That prompted Alfred Hamilton, the owner of a turkey farm, to put up his first political billboard. The billboard proclaimed that there are no billboards in Russia. When Hamilton was interviewed about his billboard, he ranted about both state and federal law limiting billboards and how unAmerican he thought the laws were. For various reasons, it wasn’t until 1971 that the state Attorney General’s office started enforcing the amended act, notifying owners of billboards that their signs were in violation of law, and outlining options for resolving it.

You’ll notice on that archive image the phrase “A R Hamilton 7 Turkeys.” At any given time, Hamilton owned a lot more than 7 turkeys, of course. The number 7 was something he used in the branding for his business for years. I don’t know if anyone knows what it’s supposed to mean.

Right…

Anyway, he began posting various anti-communist slogans on the billboard, adding the creepy Uncle Sam, while he and the attorney general’s office fought it out in court. He reached a settlement with the state, agreeing to take down the sign, with the state compensating him for the cost of deconstruction. And then, shortly afterward, he put the billboard back up, on a different part of his property. The state law allowed signs of a certain size on the premises of a business so long as the sign advertised the business. He’s tried to qualify for that exemption before, but the court had ruled that while he owned the plot of land where he had initially put the sign up, it wasn’t a spot the public could drive to and make a purchase.

You see the level of discourse, here…

So he moved the sign closer to the building where he had the office. The state came back, arguing that the sign wasn’t advertising his business, in part because he didn’t always mention the farm. So he added the name of the business in white letters on the bottom frame of the sign. And for a few years the top to the sign mentioned which road to take of the exit to get to the business office. Eventually the court decided that while the political slogans were much larger and so prominent that many people driving by would never notice the advertising part of the sign, that it did technically qualify for the exemption.

Because the sign often had racist and homophobic messages in addition to the knee-jerk anti-government screeds, from time to time over the years people living in nearby communities would petition to have the sign removed. There were a streak of years where the guy was really obsessed with gay people, so it seemed that half the time the sign had various homophobic proclamations.

I was trying to find a particular image, because one time, when he found out that the Evergreen State College was hosted a queer film festival, he put up what he thought of as a sarcastic criticism of the festival? But apparently people driving from Portland, Oregon to come of the festival saw the sign and thought it was advertising for the festival.

Because of course he’s also a birther…

In the mid-nineties Hamilton sold his farm to a large agro-business and prepared to retire to Alaska. The sign was deconstructed again, and people living nearby thought it was finally going away. But, nope, the billboard went back up nearby. Hamilton’s son still owned some adjacent land where he was running some sort of RV business, and he put the sign up, there. Still quite visible from the freeway. Apparently the messages stopped getting changed out weekly for a number of years. According to one of the articles I found while I was looking for representative pictures, Hamilton was still composing the messages up in Alaska and sending them to his son until his death in 2004. Now the son is carrying on the hateful tradition on his own.

The state has gotten involved a couple of times since, because for quite a while the sign no longer had any advertising on it at all. But eventually the names of the businesses the son was running got added back.

There was at least one point where a group of protestors show up to picket the business and cover the sign with a tarp that had a pro-gay message: 2014: TWACtion: Environmental and Gender Rights Groups Occupy I-5 Billboard.

I’m writing about this today because there’s a new petition calling for the sign to come down: 73,000 signature petition calls for takedown of landmark Uncle Sam billboard.

And I have a few quibbles with some of the people quoted in the various stories about the sign. The first thing is, no slogan that I’ve ever seen on the sign has made me think anything other than, “What an ignorant a-hole!” I mean, I realize if you are as ill-informed as Hamilton was and his son seems to be, I guess some of the signs would make you do something that resembles thinking.

Which isn’t to say that I think ignorant, hateful people don’t have the right to hold those opinions and even express them.

I hate seeing that billboard every time I drive down to visit family (and on the trip back). It usually puts me in a bad mood.

But do I want it banned?

Free speech is a topic a lot of people misunderstand. The Supreme Court has long held that certain categories of speech enjoy less protection (obscenity, fraud, defamation, incitement), but not necessarily no protection. For instance, if the billboard referred to me by name and asserted that I was a pedophile, that would be defamation and actionable. Because it is false and harmful to my reputation. But when/if the billboard said that all queers are pedophiles? While it is false, it’s a bit harder to argue that the statement harms any particular person’s reputation. At least that’s what the courts have said so far. Similarly, the courts have held that public figures have to meet more stringent criteria to sue for defamation than private citizens do.

Hamilton’s original billboard was trying to argue that any regulation of billboards by government was censorship. The government argued that because taxpayers fund highways, that the areas immediately adjacent to highways is public property, and therefore the government has a right to regulate signage to a degree. When they amended the law (after some court cases), they argued further that some regulation of signage in view from designated highways was also permitted. The amended law carved out exemptions, one of which I mentioned above about on premises signage for business purposes.

So, as odious as I think the Hamiltons are, it’s their property, and if they want to advertise their business with racist, homophobic, and similar slogans, they’re within their rights.

I do think that they have intentionally pushed the limits of the law, particularly during the times when there is no mention of the business on the billboard at all. And I think they have done so more out of spite than any noble desire to test constitutional limits. Because of that spiteful nature, I don’t think they will ever succumb to community pressure to quit posting their hate.

I also think that not only are most (if not all) of the things posted on the billboard reprehensible, bigoted, and ignorant—they are also false. Not all lies constitute legal fraud or defamation, but there is a difference between whether something is legal and whether it is moral.

One of my college professors, who was also my debate coach and a mentor, always looked forward to seeing what lunacy was on the sign whenever we were traveling to a tournament that required us to drive past it. And that’s what he called it, lunacy. It so happened that he had grown up in Chehalis, just up the road, and he said for him, the sign was a reminder of why he was glad he wasn’t raising his own kids in that area. “Ignorance is funny, as long as you keep it at arm’s length,” he once said.

Sometimes I wish I could laugh at the sign like he did. Because while I understand his sentiment, I think he’s wrong. As long as some people believe (and vote based on those beliefs) that sort of ignorance and hate, it’s impossible to keep it all at arm’s length.


For some more information, if you’re interested:

Take down this racist Uncle Sam billboard.

Slade Gorton and the Infamous Hamilton Uncle Sam Billboard.

Confessions of the child of rednecks, or, not all kids had access to the same resources

This first dictionary I ever owned…

I want to talk about a personal sore point. Many times over the years I have made disparaging remarks about things other people did not know which I thought were common knowledge. I realize that I really shouldn’t. Especially because I get my own dander up when people are dismissive of any comments I have made about certain deficiencies in my own education which I am well aware of. One specific phenomenon is that there are words that I encountered in various books I read as a child, but it was many years later before I ever heard another human speak them outloud. I had been able to infer the meaning of the word from the context in which it was used. In my head I pronounced it based on what I thought the spelling implied. But sometimes I was wrong about that.

On more than one occasion when I have explained that (and trust me, I feel super embarrassed when I realize I have reverted to the incorrect pronunciation), someone has pointed out that the pronunciation is available in dictionaries. And that just makes me feel even more embarrassed but also more than a bit angry.

I am obsessed with dictionaries. I own more than five bookshelves of various dictionaries, for instance, and a rather large number of unabridged dictionaries. But here’s the thing: that’s me, as an adult pushing sixty who has had the luck to work in the tech industry for decades and make a decent living. I have access to dictionaries now, yes, but I didn’t always. And I am not, by any means, the only kid for which this is true.

I’ve mentioned before that my father worked in the petroleum industry, one consequence of which is that I attending ten different elementary schools in four different states. My dad’s specific job title throughout my elementary years was “roughneck.” The pay wasn’t great. It was a heavy labor job with no union benefits.

In second grade we moved from a town in central Colorado that had a really well-funded public school system to a town in southwest Nebraska which had a less advanced school system. The first day I got to go to the school library I saw that they had a large unabridged dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach it. When I tried to get to it, the librarian stopped me and explained that only kids fourth grade and up were allowed to use that dictionary, because it was printed on very delicate paper that us clumsy second-graders would surely tear if we tried to use it.

I was so incensed that I wasn’t allowed to use the dictionary in the library, that I complained about it for many days after to anyone who would listen. My Sunday School teacher was so moved by my righteous outrage that she found the dictionary pictured up above. When she brought it to me, the spine was gone, but all the pages were there. She told me that this way I would have my own dictionary.

Mom helped me patch the broken spine with masking tape. The dictionary was not as thorough as the unabridged dictionary at the library. There are just a lot fewer words in that dictionary than the other. Also, most words had one simple definition, which means that for some words a lot of the less common meanings of words just weren’t included. Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic to have a dictionary of my own. Unfortunately, many of the times I needed to consult it (when I found a word in something I was reading where I couldn’t deduce the meaning from context) the word I was curious about wasn’t in the book.

Mom bought this dictionary at a used bookstore.

A bit over a year (and three towns) later, Mom decided to get her GED. I’ve mentioned before that my parents were only 16 years old when they married. Mom dropped out of school after her junior year, because she was pregnant by then. Anyway, for the GED classes she was taking she needed a dictionary, and she decided that she should have one of her own, rather than swiping her son’s, so she bought that dictionary. For the next many years there were two dictionaries in the house. The one Mom bought wasn’t much better than the one I owned. But sometimes when a word wasn’t in one, it was in the other, so that was an improvement.

I didn’t get access to an unabridged dictionary until the second half of fourth grade. But even then, it was only when I could go to school library. The town we lived in for the next couple of years did not have a public library. So the school library was the only option.

And I know that there are many, many kids who had less access to those sorts of educational resources than I had. And on some level it doesn’t matter that many of us got better access when we are older, some things we learn as kids will occasionally surface when we get older.

So, sometimes our childhood deficiencies continue to bite us in the butt for decades later.

Back to the two dictionaries pictured above. Many years after getting that first dictionary, I carefully removed the horribly deteriorated masking tape and constructed a new spine with acid-free book tape. That’s my handwriting on the spine. Specifically, that is me trying my best to write legibly. Infer from that what you will about how sloppy my penmanship is.

Many, many years later, Mom mentioned that the dictionary she’d bought herself was the only one she owned, so for her next birthday I bought her a much more comprehensive Merriam-Webster dictionary. Some time after that, when we were visiting for a holiday or something, Mom brought out the old dictionary and said she never used it anymore because the newer one was much nicer. She was thinking of getting rid of the old one, but before she did, she wanted to offer it to me. Of course I took it.

I sometimes wonder just how much that incident in second grade when a librarian told me I wasn’t allowed to touch the unabridged dictionary has contributed to my obsession with dictionaries.

Who knows?

Talking to myself – it’s how some of us think, okay?

“If you see me talking to myself, do not disturb. I'm having a staff meeting.”

(Click to embiggen)

I don’t know how young I was, precisely, when my parents decided to talk to me about my imaginary friend. It was sometime before I started kindergarten, but I don’t know how long. I also don’t know if either of them thought I was already too old for that sort of thing, because the conversation very quickly went south, as I explained, quite emphatically, that I didn’t have an imaginary friend. I was talking, I said, to the voices in my head.

That was not a phrase my dad was at ALL happy to hear come out of his son’s mouth.

What I understood, even then, was that the voices were different parts of me. I was processing things by having a discussion with myself. I knew that the voices weren’t really voices. I knew that the voices were just different ways of looking at the situation I was thinking about or considering. I didn’t think that I was getting messages from god or something. I knew that all I was doing was thinking.

But I didn’t quite have the conceptual framework to explain that. So what my dad perceived was that I was confessing to suffering from severe delusions or some other mental illness… and you may recall from some earlier blog posts about my evil grandmother, Dad was raised by a woman who believed two contradictory myths about mental illness: 1) that it isn’t a real illness, and 2) mental illness was a form of immorality that was evidence of bad blood in a family. And my evil grandmother had opposed my parents’ relationship (and tried to engineer a divorce after they married many times), because she believed my mom’s family was nothing but bad blood (with the odd exception of one maternal great-grandmother that I have never quite unpacked).

In short, Dad went ballistic. I was never, under any circumstances, to tell another person about these voices! And if he caught me talking to myself in circumstances where anyone outside the immediate family heard, I would be punished. And yes, than means that several times over my elementary school career, I got a beating because a teacher mentioned at parent-teacher conference or report guard about me talking to myself at school or on the playground.

It wasn’t something I was doing on purpose. Being inside my head is like sitting in a crowded conference room. There are constant conversations going on inside there about everything from what I am seeing or listening to at the time, any number of work and personal projects, anything I have read recently, and so on.

No amount of shaming and beating would stop my brain from working that way.

I did become increasingly careful about trying to keep the conversations inside my head. To this day, under many circumstances, if someone overhears me talking to myself, I feel extremely embarrassed.

But inside my head, the committee just keeps going on.

And the voices have their own personalities, usually represented by taking on the voice of various actors/characters from various movies/TV shows/et cetera. Some have changed. For most of my childhood and well into my twenties, the practical and sensible voice sounded like Walter Cronkite. Somewhere around season three or four of Star Trek: the Next Generation that voice morphed into Patrick Stewart’s voice.

The most dramatic change was the voice that thinks most of the socially inappropriate and sexual innuendo-laden thoughts. From puberty until one particular fateful night in my late teens, the voice always sounding like comedic actor, Paul Lynde. Then, when two older friends took me to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time, suddenly that voice became Tim Curry as Dr Frank N Furter and it has never changed.

I started writing at a fairly early age, too (5 year old me tried to write a collection of stories based on my stuffed animals, entitled “Uncle Bunnys” {note misspelling} which thankfully is lost to the mists of time). And as I began creating my own stories, various characters I created became new voices in my head. And some of them love commenting on my real life, so I don’t just hear them when I’m thinking about stories or trying to write them.

They also, I should note, love to comment on the actions of fictional characters in any movie, show, or story that I take in.

The worst is when I am working on one of my one stories, and then a character of my own that doesn’t even exist in that world feels the need to chime in and tell the character I’m writing at the moment that they are doing it wrong. Whatever it is.

For many years I have had to warn new co-workers that when I’m deep in a problem, I mutter to myself a lot. And if the computer or software I’m working with (or something I’m reading) vexes me, my muttering swears like a sailor. One coworker I shared a cube wall with for a few years laughed when I warned him, “Join the club!” And yes, after that we got in the habit of commenting on each other’s muttered swearing when we heard it.

Some years ago when I was explaining this, someone asked how it was possible to think if there are voices always going on. I tried re-explaining that the voices were me thinking, but they didn’t quite get it. So I wound up asking a question that I’m sure he thought was me being flippant: “How on earth to you manage it without any voices?”

More seriously, I think the part I was failing to convey is that when I get in a groove on a task, most of the voices go quiet. I’ve made a decision and now I’m executing it.

I also realized that this might be why I’ve have always done a better job at writing or drawing or painting if I’m listening to music. It’s like any of the excess processing power my brain might otherwise use to second guess what I’m doing has been taken up with processing the song I’m listening to.

But that’s just a guess. In the end, it’s all just me.

And seriously, I have a hard time understanding sometimes how anyone whose brains don’t work this way manage to figure anything out.

“I’m not a lady, I’m a witch” — or, more of why I love sf/f

Photo of a page of a Terry Pratchett book:  “You’d have done the same,” said Lily. “No,”“ said Granny. “I’d have thought the same, but I wouldn’t have done it.” “What difference does that make, deep down?” “You mean you don’t know?” said Nanny Ogg.

Click to embiggen

Many, many years ago a friend was going on and on about this hilarious book he had been reading, and by the end of the conversation had pressed his copy of the paperback in my hand to take home and give it a try. I tried to read it. I really did, but I found it off-putting almost immediately. I think I got about a third of the way through it before I decided it just wasn’t for me. So I gave it back to my friend and confessed that I just hadn’t been able to get into it. He shrugged and we started talking about another book altogether.

About two years later—after I had transferred to university in Seattle—I was involved in a conversation with a couple of different friends who were enthusing about a book and its sequel that they both quite enjoyed. One of them had a copy of the second books with him, and suggested I give it a try. “You don’t need to have read the first book to get this one,” he assured me. The cover looked suspiciously familiar, but I didn’t quite put two-and-two together.

Until later that week when I was trying to read it, and realized that the author of the book was the same as the other book from two years ago, and the protagonist that I had despised before was the main character of this book, too. So I gave it back, thanking my friend from loaning it, but admitting that I hadn’t liked it.

About three years later, on our regular gaming night, a group of friends which included the two guys who had tried to get me into the series before were going on and on and on about this latest book in the series. One of them, however said, “Oh, wait, you already tried these books before, didn’t you?” But one of the other guys chimed in to say that the first three books in the series had not been anywhere near as good as the latest, and the next thing I knew I was borrowing someone’s copy of the eighth book in the series.

Admittedly, the main character of book eight was a completely different character who wasn’t quite as irritating as the other guy had been, but I still found myself getting bogged down and rolling my eyes a lot at things in the book until finally I once again gave up.

A few times over the eight years, some subset of friends or acquaintances in various fannish or gaming situations would talk about the series, including explaining which were their favorites and which they could take or leave. And at least one more time during this interval I picked up another book in the series, but it just didn’t grab me.

I found myself after that in a conversation with another friend about the series. She was a little bit surprised that I didn’t like it, as she thought a lot of the themes the author explored were things I enjoyed. We ended up having a very long conversation about books other people had recommended that we didn’t like, and why we thought that was in various cases. This last conversation happened around the same time that my first husband, Ray, was undergoing chemotherapy. Or maybe it was during one of his surgeries? What I know is that the conversation happened in a waiting room at a medical facility where she was hanging out with me specifically to give me emotion support and distract me a bit.

A few months later, Ray died —just two weeks before Thanksgiving. Just before Christmas, she dropped by one day to drop off a Christmas present, but more importantly, to loan me a few books. Most of the books in the pile I recognized as series that I had been interested in trying one day. And then one of the books was in the series that people had been trying to get me to try for a long time.

She pulled it out of the pile and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation we had about why you didn’t like other books in this series. The more I think about it, I think if any of the books will appeal to you, it’s this one. Give it a try. I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.”

It was one of the books I stuck in my suitcase when I went to spent about a week at Mom’s for the holiday. Mom tended to go to bed a lot earlier than I did, at least on the nights that weren’t filled with holiday things with the family. So the first night after Christmas, I was laying in her guest room, trying to occupy myself quietly until I was ready to sleep. And I opened up the loaned copy of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. I had intended to just force myself to read it for an hour or so until I go sleepy. Because I was not at all confident that I’d like it any more than any of the other Discworld books I had tried before.

The next thing I knew, I was on the last page of the book. The sun had risen outside. I had stayed up all night, eagerly turning pages to find out what happened next!

I re-read the book from beginning to end two more times before that vacation was over. Shortly after getting home, I was telling my friend how much I loved it and that I knew I needed to get my own copy. A couple days later she dropped by and loaned me the next book from the series with the same character, Witches Abroad. And while at the end of Wyrd Sisters I was a big fan of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, and Greebo the world’s scruffiest cat, by the end of Wyrd Sisters, I was ready to say that Granny Weatherwax was the greatest fictional character ever created.

It was at this point that the friend advised me that there was an earlier book starring Granny Weatherwax, but it was “written while Pratchett was still figuring out the world, so it’s almost like she’s only a similar character who happens to have the same name.”

Over the course of the next few months I read all of the witches books in the Discworld series which existed at that time (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade). By this time I was dating Michael, and he was as surprised as many other friends had been that it had taken me so long to start reading these books. It was his copy of the first Granny Weatherwax book, Equal Rites, that I finally read. And I could see that my other friend had been correct, if I’d read it before I had come to love the more fully realized Granny, I would definitely not have liked it.

Having reached the end of the witch books available at the time, I was eyeing some of the other books in the series, when the friend who had picked Wyrd Sisters for me said, “Skip the earlier guard books. Start with Feet of Clay, then if you like the characters try circling back to the beginning.”

And that’s how I eventually wound up reading (and buying my own copies of) almost the entire Discworld series mostly out of order. Because the earlier ones did make more sense once I had gotten into the mindset of the series overall.

The earliest books in the series feel like broad parodies of epic fantasy novels. They have their funny moments, but when the jokes clunk, they remind me (at least) of the non-parody fantasy books that I love and make me wish I was reading one of those.

Wyrd Sisters, in my humble opinion, was the first time that one of the discworld books became full-on satire. Parodies always contain satirical elements, but a full literary satire doesn’t lampoon or ridicule an individual person or work—it uses the elements of irony and humor to lampoon society as a whole.

Several of the books immediately following Wyrd Sisters strayed a bit back into more broad parody elements, but by Reaper Man and Witches Abroad, Pratchett had finally found the groove of holding up a mirror to the reader and the world we live in rather than poking fun at individual works.

This post was originally supposed to be about Witches Abroad, why I love it, and how it changed the way I looked at the world, so maybe I should get to those specifics.

The premise: the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre is served by three witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlik. There are many other witches who live in neighboring and not quite so neighboring communities, but these three form the core of most of the witches books. Nanny Ogg is the ultimate grandmother—she has outlived a rather large number of husbands, has sons working in various jobs in her hometown and the neighboring communities, a large number of daughters-in-law who fear her, and innumerable grandchildren. She loves to drink and is famous for singing a particularly naught song. Magrat is the youngest of the coven, and is prone to trying new and modern things like crystals and meditation. Granny is older, has never married, and would never, ever be described as nice. But she is also the undisputed leader of their coven, and the one that everyone turns to when the situation gets dire.

This particular book is kicked off when a witch who lives in a neighboring county dies, and leaves a powerful magic wand (and the fairy godmothering duties that go with it) to Magrat. And she writes her will in a way that she knows will provoke Granny and Nanny to insist on going with Magrat to help the girl she is now the godmother to.

The middle of the book involves adventures the three witches have traveling through unfamiliar lands (with a lot of funny events along the way). But there is also a growing sense of trouble, as it becomes clear that the goddaughter in the far-off land is under the influence of someone who is quite dangerous, indeed.

When they find the girl (living in a sort of parody of New Orleans), they quickly discover that the other godmother is someone known to Granny and Nanny: Lily Weatherwax, Granny’s older sister.

The image I included above is a bit of dialog from Witches Abroad.

“You’d have done the same,” said Lily.
“No,”“ said Granny. “I’d have thought the same, but I wouldn’t have done it.”
“What difference does that make, deep down?”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Nanny Ogg.
—from Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Lily does not fit the mold of villain when we first meet her. She is nice and charming. She claims her only goal is to ensure everyone is happy and get what they want. It becomes clear fairly quickly that what Lily really wants is for everyone to act happy and cheerful and more than content with whatever their lot in life is.

I mentioned above that Granny isn’t nice. She is sharp-tongued and blunt. She is ruthless when going up against someone who is causing harm to others. But she isn’t one of those characters who is rough and mean on the outside and turns out to have a soft squishy golden heart. Granny is granite all the way through, but it is a granite of morality.

In the above quote, Lily just given her explanation for why she uses her magic to force people into the roles she deems them suited for. She has explained how people make foolish mistakes, live inefficient lives, and waste a lot of time and effort of frivolities, often causing themselves misery and trouble along the way. Isn’t it better, she argues, for someone like her who can see how they could be happier, to make sure that they are?

When Granny objects, that’s what causes Lily to say, “You’d have done the same.”

It is this exchange that shows the core of Granny’s hard, granite soul. She knows that she is capable of doing immoral things. She has had those unkind, cruel, manipulative thoughts. And she refuses to give in to them. She can be harsh-spoken, but she is always harsher to herself, and she knows that kindness isn’t about how we talk to people, but what we actually do for them.

In more than one of the books, Granny defines evil not as maliciousness nor cruelty nor depravity. No. Evil, she tells us, begins when you start thinking and treating people like things.

The book hits on many other ideas along the way, but I think the heart of it was the revelation that how you treat and care for each other is what matters. And there isn’t a grey area between treating everyone as a person entitled to dignity and consideration, and treating them as expendable.

This post contains nothing momentous nor newsworthy

Many, many years ago, my late-husband, Ray, made some disparaging comments about our vacuum cleaner. When I suggested we could buy a new one, he immediately scoffed, saying that the one we had worked fine for our needs, since our place was so small and we didn’t need to spend the money. “Okay,” I said, and made a mental note to research vacuum cleaners so I could buy him one at the next gift-giving opportunity.

Which I did.

And when he first tore open the wrapping paper he gave me such a look… so I thought I had really screwed up. But when I tried to apologize for getting the wrong thing he brushed it off. Later, after we’d unboxed it together and I vacuumed our living room with it, he commented that at least it was a lot quieter than the old one. And later still, after we had been using it for a few months, he apologized to me for being less than enthusiastic about the present. He claimed that the lack of enthusiasm was because he assumed that I was expecting him to do all the housecleaning from then on. Which was a bit odd, given how long we’d lived together and that we’d both always tried to split the chores.

He seemed to become quite fond of that vacuum cleaner over the next few years.

After he passed away, and a few years after that after Michael and I had been living together for a while, Michael once commented on the vacuum cleaner. When I suggested we buy a new one, he countered that maybe we should look at getting a Roomba… which eventually we did. And it was upgraded a few times over the years. But we still used the stand-up vacuum occasionally, for the carpeted stairs and the upstairs hallway.

During the many months of our move from Ballard, we made a lot of decisions about things to keep and things to get rid of. The vacuum cleaner didn’t come up until after we had signed the lease at the new place. For the first three weeks after signing, we were transporting car loads of medium-sized boxes until we had enough of them out of the way that the professional movers could handle all the furniture and a bunch more of the boxes. At which point there were still odds and ends to move from the old place, but mostly a lot of cleaning to do.

At some point in that interval, Michael brought up the vacuum and the fact that he didn’t think we needed it. The new place was not split level, as the old one had been, so the Roomba could, in theory, get everywhere without human intervention. And since the new place was larger, had a more open floor plan, and we had already decided to get rid of a few pieces of furniture, Michael’s reasoning was that the Roomba would probably be less prone to trapping itself.

For spot cleaning, he had a handheld Dyson which he felt was adequate to the job. And by that point, the stand-up vacuum cleaner was over 20 years old. So we left the stand-up at the old place, and it was used to vacuum up there while we were cleaning each of the rooms as we cleared out the final stuff and so forth.

At the end of the last day of cleaning, Michael removed the full bag, which I carried out to the dumpster. He put a new bag onto the cleaner, and then attached the pack that had a couple more unused bags and a replacement belt (they came in multi-packs, so when we had had to replace it, we had spares). And it was one of the things we dropped off at Value Village on our last drive between the old place and the new.

We’ve been here for almost three years, and mostly Michael has been right. The Roomba does a good job keeping the floors clean. We have replaced the Roomba once in that time (the old one had been due for replacement when we got the news of the old building selling, so we had put off buying a new one), and Michael has had to replace a few parts on the new one. It is a very busy little robot here.

But the Dyson hasn’t quite worked out for spot cleaning. The two main troubles are that 1) I forget where Michael has it stashed in the computer room, so if I decide I need it when he’s not home I wind up looking around for it for a while, and 2) half the time when I find it, the charging cable has come loose so the battery is dead, so it won’t run. And no, you can’t run it directly from the charger.

So recently, I happened upon a very cheap vacuum cleaner which is, design wise, a Dyson knock-off. It can be used as either a hand-held vacuum or with the longer attachment a traditional floor vacuum. But the big advantage is there is no battery. You just plug it in and it goes.

And when I say cheap, I mean, less than the cost of a replacement battery for the handheld Dyson.

It arrived in the middle of one of my work-from-home days (of course, right now, every one of my work days is a work-from-home day), and I assembled it, but hadn’t used it, yet when Michael got home from work. I had to run to the pharmacy, and he decided to try out the vacuum while I was gone. There were about three places in the house that the Roomba can almost never get to, and he vacuumed those up.

He says it works great, he understands why I bought it, and can’t argue with the price.

The Roomba still does most of the work. But now we can reliably clean all the weird corners. Which is a minor load off my mind. Sometimes it little things like that, you know?

Time to tell the Rabbit Story, or, what happened the day I was born

My dad stands outside on a snowy day, with a gun and his gun cleaning kit.

This picture of my dad was taken by my maternal grandmother the same year I was born.

Usually when I tell stories about my father, they aren’t pleasant. He was a physically and verbally abusive man for as long as I could remember. And I’ve often talked about the contrast between the man in whose home I grew up and stories that various relatives would tell about what he was like “before the bad times.” This is going to be one of those stories. While it is a story that was told with great warmth and fondness by more than one member of the family, I do feel obligated to offer a warning that the tale will include some discussion of near-fatal medical complications associated with childbirth, as well as the hunting and killing of animals many regard as cute, and related subjects.

The most entertaining version of this story was told by my maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma), who was Dad’s mother-in-law. The most disturbing version I ever heard was from my Dad. This retelling will adhere mostly to Grandma’s version, but a few details from all the versions contribute. Buckle up, mind the content warnings, and let’s begin… Read More…

Getting Meta and Merry on Boxing Day

More gay lights! Hey, it's right there on the box. It must be true!

More gay lights! Hey, it’s right there on the box. It must be true!

When I talked about why we have been avoiding visiting my family on major holidays the last few years, I realized that I haven’t emphasized quite enough a positive outcome of this. When I visit before Christmas to drop off presents, I usually wind up having long and very pleasant conversations with several of the relatives. That those conversations are mostly one-on-one means that I’m never quite sure what we’ll end up talking about.

Last spring, for instance I wrote about one form of gatekeeping that sometimes happens in publishing under the guise of believability. And as an example of things that some people find unbelievable, I went on a rambling discussion of some of the reasons I referred to my late paternal grandmother as Evil: Believability isn’t just about fiction, or Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother. During two long conversations, one with Mom, and the other with Aunt Silly, we both got onto the subject of my two grandmothers.

And I was a little bit surprised that this Aunt—who had never been the daughter-in-law of my Evil Grandma—had a relevant story to add to Evil Grandma’s saga. I shouldn’t have been, because she had still been a teen-ager and living at home when Mom and Dad had starting dating. Both Mom and Dad had been in her wedding party when Aunt Silly got married. Aunt Silly had still been living in the same tiny town until maybe six months after both I and my almost-twin cousin were born. But for some reason it had never occurred to me that Aunt Silly would have had more than a few casual interactions with my Evil Grandmother.

First, the shortish version of Aunt Silly’s story (which involves a urinary tract infection that I had when I was only two months old). Evil Grandma had been babysitting me for the day, and was certain that the only reason I wouldn’t stop crying was because my Mom coddled me too much. But when the crying reached a point she couldn’t stand, she’d taken me to Nice Grandma’s house, where Aunt Silly happened to be with her own baby.

During the conversation with Nice Grandma, among the weird things Evil Grandma said was that there was no reason to check a baby’s diaper until a certain number of hours after she’d changed it last. And when both Aunt Silly (who admittedly had only been taking care of her first child for a couple of months) and Nice Grandma had expressed disbelief, Evil Grandma insisted that since I refused to eat, there had been no reason to check the diaper. And she had repeated the assertion that the real problem was Mom’s coddling

And whether the diaper was wet or not wasn’t the issue: it was that Evil Grandma had not noticed that parts of a baby’s body that shouldn’t be were bright red, and even when confronted with the evidence (and after a visit to the doctor and trip to the pharmacy), she remained insistent that it had been perfectly reasonable to assume the problem was Mom’s coddling rather than a medical issue.

Second: Mom’s story is an addendum to the tale that I called the Second Coda in the above linked post of the phone call to me from Evil Grandma when she was in a hospital, on a respirator, and thought she was about to die. After that rather dramatic call, I tried to get hold of my younger sister, because I had no idea if anyone had called her to tell her Evil Grandma had had a stroke. The number I had for my sister turned out to be no longer connected, so I’d called Mom.

A few days later, Mom says, she was trying to get an address to send a ‘get well’ card or something to Evil Grandma, and whoever she had gotten hold of at the hospital, instead of giving her the hospital’s mailing address, had transferred the call to Grandma’s room.

Grandma was no longer on the respirator at that point, and was talking a little bit better. Mom had not expected to actually be talking to Evil Grandma. Mom says, “After I told her who I was and she replied that she was surprised to hear from me, I just blurted out that I had heard she wasn’t well and wanted to make sure she knew that I forgave her, and hoped that she could forgive me of my part in our disagreements.” Evil Grandma had replied, “Thank you. I love you.”

And in other developments: As seems to happen every time I visit Mom, she offered me a bunch of odd things that used to belong to one of my grandmothers or great-grandmothers. Which makes me wonder, once more, how so many members of Mom’s side of the family seem to have a kind of Tardis-like ability to store an apparent infinite number of things in a couple of ordinary closets. I wound up saying “yes” to a couple of the things (but also “no” to a bunch of others). So now hanging on my Christmas tree are two pairs of bells that had been crocheted by my paternal great-grandmother.

And while I was hanging them up, I realized that while I have memories of both of my Great-grandmother’s Christmas trees, as well as Nice Grandma’s eclectic ornament collection, I can’t remember what Evil Grandma’s Christmas trees looked like. I have memories of looking through the presents under her tree, sometimes by myself, but also sometimes with Grandpa or Dad. Both of them were world champions at the art of carefully turning a package over and and around to try to figure out what was inside. Please note that I didn’t say shake—shaking is what amatuers do. You tilt is slowly this way and that, your fingers spread wide over the surface, so you can feel how whatever is inside moves. You can identify bits that are heavier. And especially if the package is big enough in comparison to the contents, you can hear the sound it makes as it slides when you tilt it.

Anyway, I know what corner of her living room that Evil Grandma put her tree every year, but I don’t recall what kinds of ornaments she had and so on. Which seems weird given both my life long obsession with Christmas decorations, and that almost ever single Christmas before my parents’ divorce was final (when I was 15 years old), was spent at her house.

But I can’t remember what her trees looked like. I realize that for Great-grandma SJ, Great-grandma I, and my Nice Grandma I happen to have photos of some of their Christmas trees—usually with me standing in front of the tree at various ages. I also own a couple of decorations that originally were owned by one of those three. So I’ve had something to refresh my memory for them.

Finally: my Nice Grandma liked to have all the family get together to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. And once she had moved back to southwest Washington, where a whole lot of extended family members lived nearby, she’d host this big get-together where relatives, in-laws, ex-in-laws, and friends would show up. You never knew who you would run into at Grandma’s Christmas Eve, because she collected strays her whole life.

There was a point when her health started making it difficult to handle all the cooking and such, so we’d shifted to most of the Christmas Eve get-togethers happened at my Aunt Silly’s house. Then Aunt Silly sold her house and moved into a much smaller place, so the next few years a cousin who had a big house hosted instead.

The first Christmas after Grandma died was… odd. Everyone said they wanted to get together for Christmas Eve but it wasn’t clear who would host it. The cousin who had hosted the last few years wanted someone else to do it. Apparently a couple of other cousins weren’t sure they wanted to make the drive. There was a point during the discussion when Aunt Silly apparently angrily said to one of her kids, “…now that Mother’s gone, I’m the matriarch of the family and I’m in charge!” Which eventually led to Aunt Silly inviting folks to her place—but not many showing up.

It happened to be one of the years that Michael and I spent Thanksgiving with Mom but stayed in Seattle for Christmas. So we didn’t show up at anybody’s get-together.

Since then no one has felt the need to make a concerted effort to get all of the cousins together for Christmas. And I get it. Most of my cousins are grandparents themselves, now. Just trying to spend time with most of their own kids and kids-in-law and grandkids is hard enough. When Grandma was alive she actually was the matriarch of this branch of the family, and it wasn’t that she ordered people to get together for Christmas Eve, it’s that at least down to my generation, we all wanted to stop in to see her and get one of her signature hugs. If you wanted to know where most of the family could be found on Christmas Eve, you called to ask Grandma where she was going to be.

I usually call her my Nice Grandma because, certainly by comparison to Evil Grandma, she was. But she was also stubborn and opinionated. Traits I inherited from her in abundance, by the way. Her stubbornness wasn’t about being inflexible—I’ve said before that if you presented a case for why you disagreed with her, she would sometimes change her mind, and even if she didn’t she would acknowledge that you had the right to make your own decisions. She wasn’t focused on always proving that she was right, her priority was simply never to give up on those that she loved.

She would explain why she was giving the advice, and what she thought would go wrong if you did it differently. She wasn’t always right. And she wasn’t always pleasant. But there she didn’t believe in treating anyone with disrespect. She was always trying to be kind. It would never have occurred to Grandma to tell other people that they were supposed to do what she said because she was “the matriarch of the family.”

I mean, if you have to pull rank? You’ve already lost the argument.

Timorous heroes and erratic phantoms—more of why I love sf/f

Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr Chicken.

A hauntingly hilarious cinematic experience!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love The Ghost and Mr Chicken. I know, based on when it was released in theatres and then when it came to television, that I was probably 8 years old when I first saw the film, but it was a staple of local TV afternoon movie fare for the next decade or thereabouts, so I saw it at least once a year from sometime in elementary school until well into high school. I acquired a VHS copy of the film for myself as an adult and watched it around Halloween for a number of years, and since then I’ve re-acquired it on disc and now I can stream it from our media server whenever I want. So I’m really familiar with the film, in all of it’s lovely, gooey, genre-goodness!

So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.

Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.

Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.

Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.

Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.

The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.

I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.

Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.

Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.

…except for Alma.

As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.

Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.

I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.

I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.


Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.

Undying fiancées, melodramatic lab assistants, and monsters in the closet—more of why I love sf/f


I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.

And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.

And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.

There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.

Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.

While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.

Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.

Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.

Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.

The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.

The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.

Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.

Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.

I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.

I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.

The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.

And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.


I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.

Evasive geniuses, invisible monsters, and helpful (sassy gay) robots—more of why I love sf/f

Forbidden Planet!

I have written many times about my problematic relationship with scary movies. They give me nightmares, and I’m the kind of person who, while having a nightmare, climbs out of bed, running around waking up everyone I can find, frantically trying to explain the horrific danger we’re facing and how we have to come up with a plan to deal with the threat now. The very first movie that caused that reaction in me is a movie that many people don’t think of as a scary movie: the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Many people think of Forbidden Planet as the ultimate science fiction movie. Nearly every sci fi movie and series since its release has, whether consciously or not, copied its template. Which isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. And most people don’t think of Forbidden Planet as a horror film, but…

So, in 1971 Forbidden Planet was shown on U.S. network television for the first time. I’ve mentioned many times before that my mom was a sci fi fan from way back. My dad was more of a spy and western fan, but he also liked some science fiction, so he didn’t object when Mom wanted to watch this show. The broadcast was a few months before my 11th birthday. The whole family watched the show together, though I think than my sister, who was 6 years old at the time, fell asleep before it was over.

I really liked the show while we were watching it.

But several hours later, I was standing in the hallway, very confused, because my mom had thrown a glass of water in my face because I had gone to sleep, and then got out of bed and found my parents and started jabbering about the monster that was trying to kill us. This was, as far as my family and I know, the first time I sleepwalked.

So, let’s get back to the movie…

The movie starts on the bridge of a spaceship where Commander John J. Adams is in charge. The movie is careful never to mention any nationality for the military organization in which the crew serves, though at a later point in the film they send a report back to Earth and await further instructions. They’ve been sent to a planet called Altair IV where a scientific expedition was sent many years before, but lost contact.

As Adam’s ship approached the planet, the make radio contact with one of the scientists from the expedition, Dr. Morbius. Morbius warns them not to land, saying he is the only survivor, that the planet is very dangerous, and he can’t guarantee their safety. Adams has his orders, and lands anyway.

They learn that there are two humans on the planet: Morbius and his daughter (named Altaira) who was born after the original expedition landed. Morbius explains that after the discovered the remains of an advanced civilization of aliens called the Krell, members of the original expedition had been killed off mysteriously by some planetary force, until the a small group tried to flee the planet to return to Earth, but the ship was vaporized. Morbius and his daughter have been living alone with their very helpful robot, Robbie, peacefully ever since.

As far as I have been able to tell, Robbie was the first robot in any film to be portrayed with an actual personality, rather than being a walking tin can that mindlessly followed his instructions. One of my favorite scenes with Robbie is when, later, Altaira wants Robbie to make her a dress covered with star sapphires, and Robbie explains that all of those sapphires will take many weeks to synthesize, whereas he could make her a dress covered with diamonds in a few hours.

Back to the main plot: Dr. Morbius is very evasive with the Commander and his crew. He does show them some of the remains of the Krell civilization, including thousands of underground nuclear reactors that are still generating unimaginable amounts of energy for no known purpose, an education machine, and other devices that Morbius still doesn’t understand. But because Morbius’s translation of the Krell records reveal that every last member of the race was destroyed by a mysterious force they couldn’t understand, and Morbius’s shipmates were destroyed by a similarly mysterious force, he keeps urging the commander and his crew to leave. And the first night the ship is on the planet, and invisible monster sneaks into the ship, kills a crewman, and disables the hyperspace communicator, making it impossible for the next several days for the ship to contact Earth.

And let me tell you, the way the showed impact of the invisible monster, who was so heavy his feet bent the metal of the stairway into the ship, was very, very creepy!

The plot continues, with one crewman flirting with (and clearly hoping to take advantage of) the very naive Altaira. The commander intervenes and sends the crewman back to the ship, but he also scolds Altaira for wearing revealing clothing around men. Which confuses her.

When Morbius is no help with explaining the monster, the commander orders his crew to take additional precautions. Each night the ship remains on the planet, the invisible monster attacks again, and each day the ship erects more elaborate defenses, including building a huge blaster. When the monster is trying to get through the force fields and being fired on my many weapons, we get a sort of aura-like outline of the creature, the only time it isn’t invisible. But all of the tech of the starship is unable to defeat the creature.

Eventually, the commander and his closest friend on the crew (who everyone calls “Doc” though it is never clear whether he is the medical officer or if the nickname is because of some other scientific expertise) have become convinced that the monster isn’t some ineffable planetary force. They decide that one of them needs to use the alien “education machine” which Morbius has warned them away from. Morbius has explained that several members of the original expedition has tried to use the machine, and all who had tried died, except Morbius. The commander winds up distracting Morbius while Doc get to the machine.

The machine does kill Doc, but as he is dying, he is able to tell the commander enough to solve the mystery.

There is a dramatic final confrontation, in which it appears that the mysterious force no longer thinks of Altaira, Robbie, or Morbius as beings to protect rather than destroy. And again, the way supposedly impenetrable Krell metal walls were being battered in by the monster was intensely scary! Commander Adams forces Morbius to face the truth. Which results in Morbius’ death. The ship is able to leave the planet, carrying Altaira and Robbie back to Earth, and the entire planet self-destructs after they leave.

Most modern analyses of the movie, if they acknowledge any problematic content at all will note the one and only woman in the cast is less than a full-fledged adult and the only agency she is granted in the plot is whether to remain loyal to her father or switch allegiance to her new romantic interest, Commander Adams. And this is problematic enough. However… all of the men in the story view Altaira as little more than an object that one of them will possess. It is precisely because Morbius perceives that he is “losing” his daughter to the commander that sets the final battle in motion. All of the other characters in the story are vying for the attention of the one and only woman.

I should say, all of the other characters except Robbie the Robot.

I’ve never seen any critic acknowledge that, in some ways, Robbie the Robot is Altaira’s Sassy Gay Friend. He’s clever, he is devoted to Altaira but not interested in her in a romantic way. He cleans the house, prepares meals, and takes care of all the domestic tasks in the Morbius household that would traditionally be fulfilled by a woman in a non-science fiction film of the era, right? One of the roles of the asexual or effeminate man who was the witty friend of the heroine in movies of the 40s and 50s was to have insight into the motives and character of other people that the protagonists did not. So it should be no surprise that in the climactic battle, Cammander Adams uses Robbie’ perceptions of the situation to convince Altaira and Morbius of the true nature of the invisible monster.

It was many, many years later before this queer geeky nerdy child realized that at least part of the reason my favorite character out of this classic sci-fi movie was Robbie the Robot was precisely because he was the only character who wasn’t vying for the attention of a woman. And while many other aspects of the story resonated with me, none of the other characters rose to the level of identification as the robot. So this queer child, who had nightmares because of the main plot, still found models for my possible futures among the supporting cast of this movie.

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