Tag Archive | Throwback Thursday

Seriously, it’s all Greek — more adventures in dictionaries

“...involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one's own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one's own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.”

“…involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one’s own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one’s own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.” (Click to embiggen; I got a new self-lighting magnifier for my Compact Oxford—isn’t it neat?)

It happened after a committee meeting for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus when we had devolved to chatting. I don’t remember exactly what was being discussed, but one of the women got upset when I used the word “gay” to refer to the entire community. “That excludes women,” she said, icily. I apologized and said I didn’t mean to do that, it was just fewer syllables and sometimes I just wished there were a shorter way to refer to everyone, and homosexual is so clinical. She interrupted, leaning in and getting much angrier. “Another word for men! Geeze, how can you do that?” When I protested that it was a clinical term originally coined to refer to both men and women she really got upset, insisting, “Homo means man! Yeah, yeah, it’s like mankind means everyone because men think they’re all the matters!”

At this point I was no longer feeling defensive, I was feeling angry. So I explained that while if one were speaking Latin, “homo” meant man, but the word wasn’t built from Latin roots, it was from Greek roots, and in Greek, homo means “the same” which is why the doctor who first coined the term picked it, as he had written about extensively that he was describing people who were attracted to and formed attachment to member of the same sex, in contrast to hetero which is greek for “other or different.” So “heterosexual” meant someone attracted to the other sex, while “homosexual” meant someone attracted to the same sex. Also, the doctor in question was himself non-heterosexual and spent much of his life trying to prove that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

Suffice it to say that she did not appreciate my lecture.

That was not the last time I got into that argument, by any means.

Other times when I’ve pointed out the difference between the Greek root and the Latin word which sounds the same, people have countered that “a lot of people think it means male!” To which I replied that a many people think the world is flat, but I’m not going to stop using the word “world” because some people are ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand that perception is important, but here’s the thing: if I point to a crowded room full of people of many different genders and say “they’re all homosexual” not one English speaking person in the whole world is going to think I’m only referring to the men. No one will be confused. Yes, a few of the women in the crowd may raise the same incorrect objection as the person in my first paragraph, and some bisexual or pansexual people in the crowd will make an equally incorrect objection (there is no portion of homosexual that means exclusively with one’s own gender, just that there is a propensity toward one’s own gender). I will grant that if there are any asexual people in the crowd they will have, linguistically, a valid bone to pick with my sweeping generalization.

The thing is, I don’t happen to like using the word homosexual because it sounds so clinical, and despite the word being coined by a pro-homo doctor, originally, it was quickly adopted by the parts of the medical establishment who insisted we were mentally ill or depraved. But I also don’t like using it to refer to the community because no matter how you slice it, it does exclude asexuals, as well as trans people who are also straight.

If I’m in a situation where queer isn’t accepted, I will sometimes punt to “non-heterosexual,” but that has the problem of defining us by what we aren’t, rather than what we are.

There are people who object to the term because it places emphasis on sex, while we often argue that the real issue is love. I have some small amount of sympathy for that line of reasoning, though it often digresses into rather sex-negative prudery. And while there is a difference between love and sex, for most non-asexuals, the two things are tangled together pretty tightly. I am attracted to other men. The initial attraction is, to be honest, about hormones and desire. For me, at least, love is a choice I make as I get to know a person. Yes, there are feelings and admiration and so forth, but I have feelings for lots of people who I don’t choose to commit myself to. I admire lots of people I don’t choose to commit myself to.

This attempt to separate the sex from sexual orientation also ignores another important reality: heterosexual relationships are just as much about sex as queer relationships are. Don’t believe me? What were the only legal arguments that anti-gay people had left by the time the case had reached the U.S. Supreme Court: that marriage was exclusively about reproduction, and that heterosexual people would never make the lifelong commitments necessary to raise the resultant children is legal marriage wasn’t reserved for straights (no, that argument makes no sense, and yes, that’s really what they wrote in their legal briefs!). Yes, the people who claim that we’re the perverts obsessed with sex argued that it was wrong to define marriage as a loving relationship geared toward mutual support (yes, that was also in their legal brief).

But I’ve digressed enough. The word “homosexual” does not simply refer to men, it comes from the Greek word homo meaning “the same.” Neither does the word refer to any exclusivity in that sexual orientation. Also, although hetero means “other or different,” neither heterosexual or homosexual linguistically imply only two genders. Heterosexual literally means sexual activity with someone of a different sex, not the opposite sex. So not only isn’t the word sexist, it also doesn’t deny the existence of genderfluid or intersex or third sex people.

And now you know!

The meaning of everything—more adventures in dictionaries

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn't 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn’t 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

I’ve mentioned many times that my childhood was spread over ten elementary schools in four different states thanks to my dad’s employment in the petroleum industry. Those ten schools varied a lot, but one thing all of them had in common was a library; and one of the things each of those libraries had in common was a big dictionary. They didn’t all have the exact same dictionary, but there was always at least one large hardbound dictionary, frequently on display on a stand or lectern.

I distinctly remember the library at the elementary school in Kimball, Nebraska keeping its dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach the book, and it had a sign that said it was off-limits to anyone below fourth grade. When I asked why, I was told that it was too heavy for us smaller kids to lift, that it was printed on extremely thin paper which was easily torn, and besides, us lower grade kids couldn’t really understand it. I argued, of course, which got me nowhere. In fact, a note about my bad attitude was sent home to my parents. Surprisingly, my dad wasn’t angry at me about that, and seemed to actually take my side (though he didn’t go so far as to do anything about it).

I was apparently so offended at the notion that I, as a second-grader, couldn’t understand a dictionary, that I ranted about it at Sunday School. Which eventually led the wife of the pastor at the church we were attending to give me a dictionary of my own. It was an old desk dictionary whose cover was held on by a lot of layers of black book tape, but it was mine. My parents didn’t have a dictionary in the house before then (though over the next few years we acquired a couple more).

But to get back to those big dictionaries in the library, all of them said “Webster’s” on the cover, often in gold printing. A large number of them were probably various printings of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary second edition. But because the original dictionaries edited by Noah Webster had fallen into the public domain by 1889, other publishers have been using the name in the title of their dictionaries. So some of them were probably from other publishers.

I was in the fifth grade when I learned the latter fact: that just because a dictionary’s cover said “Webster’s” didn’t mean it actually was Webster’s. But at the same time I also learned about the Oxford English Dictionary. The teacher in question was deeply enamored with the OED, having started using it at libraries while he was studying in the United Kingdom, and hoped someday to own his own copy. He told us that the dictionar was so big it couldn’t be published in one book, but was split into multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia, and cost thousands of dollars. I remember specifically him explaining that it was about 30 volumes.

I learned later that the last bit was completely wrong. At the time this teacher was studying abroad, the second edition of the OED hadn’t yet been printed. The second edition is 20 volumes, whereas the first was originally ten volumes, with only three supplemental volumes having been published by the time the teacher was back in the U.S. and teaching us in the tiny town of Roosevelt, Utah. I don’t know if he truly didn’t remember how many volumes it was (which suggests that he may have used it at a library only once or twice), or if he was exaggerating for effect (giving this teacher’s personality, either was likely), but he was incorrect about the number of volumes.

Still the image of thirteen big hardback books being necessary to contain all the text of a dictionary was pretty magical. And ever since I’d learned of its existence, I too, dreamed of a day when I would have a copy of the OED of my own. It is definitely a dream, because the retail price of the full twenty volume set is usually listed at $1295 – though you can usually find it being offered at just under a thousand. I found a set in a used bookstore once… locked up in a glass case and being offered for even more than that. It wasn’t the 20-volume second edition (first published in 1989) but the old 10 volume set from 1928.

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set)

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set (me included for scale).

Given those prices (and once you learn how much work goes into producing a high quality dictionary {many years, dozens of editors, hundreds of readers scouring old books}, you’ll understand why the price tag is so high), I had to content myself with various abridged versions for several years. Until my husband surprised me on one birthday with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact Oxford is a very clever book: it contains the full text of the twenty volume dictionary in a single book. They do that by printing on each page of this oversized book tiny images of pages of the dictionary—nine pages of the large dictionary on each page of the Compact. The resulting text is so small that you need a strong magnifier to read the text. So it’s a little weird… but also very cool. At least in a geeky way.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

I’d heard about the Compact Oxford long before I’d seen one. Sometime in the early 90s a co-worker mentioned that there was a one-volume version that they sold with a magnifying glass, but that’s all the details I had at the time. I didn’t realize that they were publishing a bunch of miniature images of full pages, nor did I understand just how tiny the type really was. I had been been quite happy with my copy of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition because it is a big, hefty dictionary, almost the size of some of my other unabridged dictionaries, and it had those painstaking word histories that the Oxford is famous for. Then one birthday my husband hauls out a giant present and sets it in front of me. I thought it was a computer of something at first, until I tried to lift it. It was way too heavy for the size. Under the wrapping paper as a big box with the words “The Compact Oxford Dictionary” and “Includes Magnifier.” I was speechless. He was grinning ear-to-ear, of course. It came with more than a magnifier (and a velvet bag to keep the magnifier in). There is a secondary book with instructions on how to use the big book, a protective holder that the two books can slide into—you can put the holder on the shelf, read the spine of the dictionary, and tilt it out easily enough. The holder is substantial enough that even on a shelf with a whole bunch of equally ginormous books (such as six other unabridged dictionaries from other publishers) and it will hold the space open for the book. Which I realized is most useful when you got to put the book back.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Being the kind of nerdy collector I am, getting this book has kicked off another obsession: trying to find the perfect magnifier. A regular magnifying glass that you might pick up for home use only magnifies about 2x or 3x, and that’s just not enough to read the tiny print. The one that came with the book is a 4x magnifier, which is adequate. In the years since I got the dictionary, I’ve found a couple of 5x that work better, though sometimes getting the light right is tricky. There have been many times I’ve slid the magnifier around with one hand while shining a flashlight with the other, finding the perfect angle to light up the words without creating a glare on the part I’m trying to read. It works best with a table big enough that you can lay the dictionary flat while you’re reading.

I’m more than occasionally asked by people why I need more than one dictionary–often with the admonishment, “You know, you can look words up online.” The free online dictionaries give you a fraction of the information about each word that even a $30 collegiate dictionary will provide, is the short answer. And most don’t have the word histories—telling you what year the first use of a particular meaning of the word appeared in print. There is also something to be learned by comparing the definitions in different dictionaries. Which people who aren’t word nerds don’t understand. Then, of course, for some of my dictionaries, there’s that Old Book smell. And you just can’t get that from an online reference.

It is true that more often I look things up in the electronic Shorter Oxford that I bought for both my Mac and iPad/iPhone, simply because it’s more convenient, and I’m usually not needing all of the extra information. (And the purchased app contains more information that the free online sources!)

But the real reason that someone who will suggest looking things up online instead of cracking open a dictionary will never understand is that the dictionaries aren’t just to “look it up” and go. Books have always been magical portals for me. They take me to far away places, or fabulous worlds, or just the mind and heart of another person. That’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t just references to me. I love to read them. I love to browse from entry to entry, going down metaphorical rabbit holes as, while I’m reading about one word, a reference is made to a derivation of another word, or a different word that shares a similar root (I love the phrase some dictionaries use, “more at xxxx”!), and going off to read that, which leads to another, and another…

The whole world is contained in a good dictionary. Not just language and meaning, but history and culture (yes, the good and the bad). Finding all of that isn’t something you get just be reading an entry or two. You have to wander and browse and get lost among the words.

It’s an adventure!


I stole the title of this blog post from the very excellent book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. It’s a wonderful read about the decades-long obsession of many people to create the definitive English dictionary. You should also check out his related book, Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re both great!

If you want a good, but affordable version of the Oxford Dictionary (technically small enough to fit in a pocket), it can be had: The Oxford Color Dictionary. It’s not just a dictionary about colors; they put the word color in the title because all of the main headings in the book are printed in a nice blue, which isn’t just meant to make it pretty. As I said it is technically a pocket dictionary. The pages are very small and the font is smallish. They use of color for the words and black text for the definitions, etymologies, et al. It really makes it easy to find the words you want. And it’s cheap! There’s also a companion Color Thesaurus.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – more adventures in dictionaries

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

In 1875 Isaac Kaufmann Funk started a publishing company. Two years later one of his friends from University, Adam Willis Wagnalls, joined the firm as a partner and they renamed the business Funk & Wagnalls Company. For the next 13 years they published mostly religious books, but switched to reference after the success of their The Standard Dictionary of English in 1894. This eventually led in 1912 to the publishing Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia.

Isaac Funk did not like the conventions of other dictionaries at the time, espousing his editorial philosophy in four principles:

  • the definitions should be ordered according to current usage, rather than historical meaning
  • etymologies (word origin and/or derivation) should come after the definition, rather than before
  • there should be one alphabetic list of all words, rather than the book being divided into separate sections of geographical, mythical, biblical, and biographical terms
  • all entries that aren’t proper nouns should be published in all lowercase

Funk also had a passion for accurate phonetics.

They published an updated and expanded two-volume version of the dictionary, called the New Standard Unabridged Dictionary in 1913, which they continued to update with new editions until 1943. The Funk and Wagnalls Student’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1920, then Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary (another two-volume set) from 1946. Not to mention various specialty dictionaries.

They became a household name (as it were) when in 1953, in a deal with Unicorn Press, the encyclopedias started being sold in grocery stores. Not the entire set at once, mind you. No, each week a new volume became available. Volume one sold for 99-cents and subsequent volumes where $2.99 a piece. If you remember to go to your local supermarket every week, in just four or five months you could have the entire encyclopedia. The encyclopedias continued to be sold that way until some time in the 1970s.

But what really put Funk & Wagnalls on the pop culture map were some kings of television comedy in the 1960s. Johnny Carson appears to have been the first person, on his nightly Tonight Show to occassionally use the name of either the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia or dictionary in various jokes where he would allude to the f-word or other sexual matters without getting in trouble with the network censors. But things really took off when it became a running gag on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The catch phrase, “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls” was a running joke, as well as other references to the publisher’s awkward to pronounce name to allude to sexual topics.

There is also the much repeated story the Jerry Garcia got the idea to rename his band, The Warlocks, as the Grateful Dead, because he found the phrase while thumbing through a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary while smoking dope with a bunch of friends. For a long time Garcia’s story was considered a misremembering, as no one could find an entry for grateful dead in the editions of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries. Finally, someone found a copy of The Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition whose editorial board had included the chief editor of the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. The 1955 Britannica World Language edition included a number of terms from folklore and mythology that don’t appear in any other edition of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries.

I think I first saw the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia during one of the grocery store promotions, though I also remember the two-volume dictionary set being owned by my paternal grandparents. Funk & Wagnalls never became as famous (nor was considered as definitive) as the Merriam-Websters or Oxford dictionaries, but they were good reference books. And the idea first popularlized by Isaac Funk that the dictionary should focus first on current usage, was eventually adopted by more famous dictionaries. That isn’t a bad legacy.

And if you don’t know what I mean by legacy, well, you can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls!

Da, DA, da-da-da-DAAAA-da, da-da-da-DAAAA-da, dut-dut-da-daaaaaa! I love sf/f soundtracks

These fabulous two-disc sets have been in my collection for some time. I only yesterday realized I'd never imported them to my iTunes library!

These fabulous two-disc sets have been in my collection for some time. I only yesterday realized I’d never imported them to my iTunes library!

I saw the original Star Wars on opening night. I’ve written a few times before of being a 16-year-old geeky/nerd and my slightly older geek/nerd friends who always heard about every obscure genre movie before anyone else did who drove me down to a big theatre in a suburb of Portland, Oregon to see this thing… and it was awesome. The very next day we gathered up a bunch of our nerdy friends and made another trip to go see it. I immediately became one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans. That summer, the soundtrack came out of vinyl, so I had to buy the album. The show was such an incredible surprise blockbuster, that someone made a disco single versions of the theme that became a number one hit. A bunch of my nerdy friends spent the summer touring with the evangelical teen choir of which I was technically a member (but was not deemed worthy to go—the ins and outs of that and how it was influenced by people’s suspicions I was queer is worthy of some separate posts, but not today). And I had a very hard time getting a couple of them to listen to the album when they got back, because they’d all heard the awful disco song on the radio.

But once I got them to listen, they all loved it, too.

I played that album a lot. But vinyl records lose fidelity over time because each time you play them the physical needle that has to run through the groove to vibrate because of the shape of the groove and translate those microvibrations into sound also wears the groove smooth, slowing destroying the sound. I played it enough that, a few years later when the second movie came out and I bought the soundtrack album for it, I could hear the difference in some of the repeated themes, and bought myself a fresh copy of the first album, played it once to make a cassette tape, and put it away. I also made a tape of the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack and stopped listening to the vinyl album. I listened to both cassettes often enough that eventually I had to get the albums out again to make fresh tapes.

And yes, eventually I ended up with a vinyl version of the soundtrack for Return of the Jedi. For many years after that, I would only occasionally play the vinyl albums, relying instead on the homemade cassette copies when I wanted to listen to them. I did this with a number of sci fi movie and TV series soundtracks through the 80s and early 90s: buy the vinyl album listen at least once while I made a cassette copy, then put the album carefully away and listened to the cassette as often as I liked. And I really enjoyed listening to the music for movies and other shows that I loved.

And then along came compact discs. I started buying new music on disc, and as I could afford it, if I found CD versions of favorite old albums, I would buy them. At some point in this period of time, I found a disc that was titled, “The Star Wars Trilogy” as recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra (the originals had all been done by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Williams) for a very reasonable price, and I bought it.

In 1997, 20 years after the original release of the first movie, a set of three 2-disc Special Edition sets of the soundtracks for all three of the original Star Wars movies were released, so I finally picked up the full soundtracks on CD. These sets had considerably more music than had been included in the old vinyl albums. They had also been remastered. Each of the discs was printed with holographic images of the Death Star and other ships from the universe. Each set came with a mini hardbound book with notes about the music. They were cool. I listened to them fairly frequently for a few years.

When I first acquired what they called at the time a Personal Digital Assistant (a Handspring Visor, to be specific), it came with a disc of software to help synchronize your calendar and contacts with your Windows computer. When I upgraded a couple years later, the new disc of software included a copy of Apple’s new music manager, iTunes (the Windows version), which you could use to put music on your PDA. At the time I often listened to music while working on computer by pulling discs out of a small shelf unit I kept in the computer room and stuck in a boombox we kept in there. The little shelf held only a subset of my library, as the rest of our discs were in a much bigger shelf unit in the living room next to the main stereo. So I grabbed some of the discs from the small shelf, stuck them in the CD drive on my Windows tower, and let them get imported into iTunes. That was the original core of my current iTunes library, from which I created my first playlists—imaginatively named “Writing,” “Writing Faust,” “Writing II,” “Layout An Issue,” and “Writing III.” And several tracks from the aforementioned knock-off Star Wars Trilogy disc were included, because that was the only Star Wars music disc I kept in the computer room at the time.

Many years later, I usually listen to music from my iPhone. I had thought that I had imported all of my music from disc into the iTunes library years ago, and most of the time I buy music as downloads, now. I have new playlists which include the Star Wars theme or the Imperial March. So I thought it was all good. I hadn’t gone out of my way to listen to the entire soundtracks of the original movies in years. I have continued to buy new soundtracks for movies I love. I tend to listen to them for a while, and then pick some favorite tracks that go into playlists.

Because of some articles I was reading about the upcoming films in the Star Wars franchise, I decided that I should re-listen to the original soundtrack, and was quite chagrined to discover that, even though I thought my entire iTunes library was currently synched to my phone, all that I had was the knock-off album. (And the wholly downloaded soundtracks from The Force Awakens and Rogue One.) I was even more chagrined when I got home and couldn’t find the original albums in my iTunes library on either computer.

So I went to the big shelf of CDs in the living room (which my husband was actually in the middle of packing), and snagged the three two-disc Star Wars soundtrack sets and carried them up to my older Mac Pro tower (because it still has an optical disc drive). I now finally have the albums on my iPhone. Sometime after we finish the move, I’ve going to have to go through playlists to replace the versions from the knock-off album with the authentic score. Because, that’s what I should be using!

Also, clearly, after we’re all unpacked at the new place, I need to go through the rest of the discs and see what other music which I thought was in my library is still sitting trapped in a physical disc which never gets used any more so I can import them to the computers. I mean, our stereo doesn’t even have a disc player!

She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

I am one of the biggest, craziest Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans you will ever meet. But I wasn’t always one. I saw the original movie when it came out, and thought it was very funny. There were some things I didn’t like about it, but it was a good laugh and a fun inversion of the typical teen horror film. Then a few years later I heard they were making a television series out of it, and I was certain it would be very bad. My late husband, Ray, watched it from the beginning when it started airing as a midseason replacement in March of 1997 and told me it was awesome. At the time, it aired on a night when I frequently had board meetings or committee meetings for the chorus, so I wasn’t home while he was watching it.

He managed to get me to watch an episode or two with him that summer, because he had a lot of the season on video tape. I don’t remember hating it, but it also didn’t really grab me. Season two started that fall. I remember one particular evening when I got home for chorus rehearsal that Ray was telling me about the show and how much he was looking forward to next week’s episode, because there had been a cliffhanger.

Two nights later, Ray had a seizure and went into a coma. Then he died, and I fell apart.

Some time after he died, I was alone in the house doing something, and I heard a noise from another room. I went to see what was going on, and one of the VCRs was rewinding furiously, then popped its tape out. In 1997 DVRs didn’t exist. We owned three video cassette recorders, though, and Ray had a complicated schedule of pre-programmed recordings, and a pile of labeled tapes. He would swap out tapes at different times in the week, so that the different machines would record the next episode of whichever series was kept on that tape.

And I hadn’t been keeping up.

This was maybe two weeks after Ray had died. I was still deep in the shell-shocked stage of grieving. So the idea that I hadn’t kept Ray’s rotation going seized me as a terrible thing. I was letting him down! I had let the wrong shows get recorded on the wrong tapes! Who knows what else I had messed up? Never mind that Ray was beyond caring about these things. I wasn’t rational. When someone you love dies, even the most stoic and logical person has some moments of irrationality over take them.

So I tried to sort out what was going on with the tapes. And that’s how I ended up watching all of the season two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with about half of the season one episodes out of order (because his labelling system wasn’t always discernible to anyone but him) in a very short time.

There’s a lot of things that happened to me in those first few months after Ray died that I don’t remember clearly. But one of the few crystal clear moments was one point when I was staring at the TV and I said aloud, “Dang it, Ray! You were right. This show is incredible!”

I was addicted.

Don’t get me wrong, the show has problems. I can rant for hours and hours about how monumentally awful were most of the decisions the writers made in season six, for instance. And the many ways that season seven doubled down on some of the failure. Even before the universally despised season six, there was the incredible frustration of how the first half of season four showed such brilliance and promise of taking things to a new level, then collapsed into a world of disappointment and lost opportunity. And oy! Trying to make sense of both the explicit and implicit contradictions about the nature of magic, demons, the biology of vampires…!

Dru and Spike!

Dru and Spike!

But there were so many things the show got right. One of the things they got most right is casting James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the undead set (and if you don’t know who they are, your life is sadly lacking in Sex Pistols, is all I’m saying). There was a point, after I had acquired the complete DVD set of season two of the series, where literally at least once a week I re-watched the episode that introduced Spike and Dru, “School Hard.” They were evil and cold and vicious and Dru is crazier than a coked out mutt in a hubcap factory. But they were also madly deeply in love. Spike rather proudly proclaimed himself love’s bitch in a later season, “at least I’m man enough to admit it!”

What made the show work was the relationships between the characters. Joss Whedon and his crew created a world in which a small, pretty girl regularly kicked the butts of evil creatures. A world where the real problems that teens try to deal with often made the monsters seem trivial by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness were metaphors for the problems humans face coming of age, yep. And sometimes the parallel between the mundane story lines and the supernatural ones were a little on the nose.

But then there were the moments of brilliance, such as when everything had been taken from her: her first love turned evil, her best friend lying dying in a hospital, she’s been kicked out of her home, everything she cared about either broken, dying, or lost; the villain has fought her back into a corner and is berating her about all she has lost and all who have abandoned her. “What have you got?” he asks with a sneer, as he thrusts what we think is a killing blow with an enchanted sword. She catches the blade between her hands, looks him in the eye with the most amazing fuck-you glare of determination and says, “I’ve got me.” Then proceeds to kick his butt and save the world.

Those sorts of moments, where a simple refusal to give up in the face of impossible odds, and the many times that various characters in the story sacrificed for their loved ones and found a way out of a hopeless situation—they were what made the ups and downs of the show worth it. And I want to be clear: one of the things they did right more than once was not that the characters found that one last glimmer of hope in the midst of despair and defeat; rather, the characters made their own hope. Yes, Buffy was about empowerment. Buffy was about the damsel being able to rescue herself. Buffy was about turning notions of victims and saviors on their heads. Buffy was about seeing that the questions of good vs evil aren’t always black and white; that part of being a hero (and a big part of growing up) is about learning to make your way through all those shades of grey without losing yourself.

But mostly, Buffy was about love, chosen families, and not giving up.

“The human race might have one more chance…” – more of why I love sf/f

(l to r) Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo, Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, and Dirk Benedict as Starbuck. Promotional image from the original series. © 1978 Glen A. Larson Productions & Universal Television.

(l to r) Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo, Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, and Dirk Benedict as Starbuck. Promotional image from the original series. © 1978 Glen A. Larson Productions &
Universal Television.

Almost everything I thought I remembered about the original Battlestar Galactica television series was wrong. I started working on this post after Richard Hatch, the original Apollo passed away. I’d written some thoughts on my memories of the show, and was doing some research to put dates and context to my memories and discovered that my brain had apparently retconned lots of things. Since part of that post had involved recounting discussions that my old friend, Doug, and I had had about the show, and I had recently re-told the story of Doug and the Train Crossing to a friend, I decided to set the Galactica post aside for a while and write about my friend, instead.

Now, the things I misremembered about the series had almost nothing to do with the episodes or the storylines. And I’m at least a little bit curious as to why my brain made the changes in recollection that it did. The gist is: my recollection was that the series premiered shortly before my mom, sister, and I moved out to the west coast following my parents’ divorce (when I was 15 years old), that I initially liked the series but became dissatisfied with it as the seasons went on, and was slightly curious years later when the follow-up series Galactica 1980 was released, but was even more disappointed in how poorly the show had aged.

Which is all very, very wrong. And some of it was wrong in ways that are kind of flabbergasting. The original series premiered the same month as my 18th birthday and a little over a year after the worldwide premiere of the original Star Wars. It was only on the air for one season (24 episodes). And the gap between the ending of the original series and the premiere of the follow up was only 8 months.

Glen A. Larson originally conceived the series in the mid-sixties as a group of about three television movies called Adam’s Ark. It was a synthesis of space opera themes with Mormon theology (Larson having been raised in the Church of the Latter Day Saints). Larson had been unable to sell the idea to anyone. Even when a couple years later Star Trek became briefly a minor hit series. (Star Trek, of course, wouldn’t become a sci fi behemoth until later, after reruns had been running in syndication for several years).

Then, in 1977, the movie Star Wars was a worldwide blockbuster hit, and suddenly every network, movie studio, and anyone else in the entertainment/media/publishing world was looking to cash in on its incredible success. Larson’s pilot script looked very attractive.

They filmed the pilot, ABC bought it, put the series on the air with an incredible budget that wouldn’t be exceeded by any other TV show for many years, and we were off. The show did incredibly well in the ratings for the first month or so, until CBS shifted its schedule to put the very popular All In the Family and Alice up against it, causing Galactica’s ratings to slip a lot. Of course, the series might have slipped anyway. The initial spectacle of billions of people killed in the opening battle (not to mention the show’s willingness to cast more famous actors in roles that died within the first several episodes) really seized the imagination. Whereas a lot of the filler episodes were, well, pretty bad. And some things, like the robotic dog pieced together from parts to replace the real dog (killed in the pilot) that had once , were very cheesy.

And while those special effects were lightyears beyond anything seen on television before, they were very expensive. So the network expected not just good ratings, but unbelievably good ratings.

Still, the show had a lot going for it. It didn’t hurt that I had a big crush on Starbuck, of course. But I also had a different kind of crush on Apollo. It wasn’t until some years later, when I got to rewatch some of the original series after I had actually admitted to myself that I was gay that I realize I had the hots for Starbuck, but Apollo was who I wanted to fall in love with and settle down.

Hatch’s character was different than the typical leading man at the time. Unlike the reboot series, Apollo had a warm relationship of mutual respect with his father, Commander Adama. In the pilot he met and practically adopted Boxy (the young boy whose dog had died) helped reunite the boy with his mother, prompted fell in love with said mother, married her, and even though she is killed shortly after the wedding in a Cylon attack, remains a good father. Heroes had been family men before, of course, but unlike some previous fictional fathers, Hatch made you believe that he loved his stepson.

There was a lot to like about the original Galactica. Cool space battle, for one. The Cylon Centurions were a bit cheesy–their chrome colored bodies were always so shiny and unscuffed, even after tramping through a sandstorm on yet another planet that looked like a Universal blacklot generic Western landscape with inexplicable lights added to make it look spacey(?), for instance. But both individual Cylons and the fleet were appropriately menacing. The show did a good job of making it feel like the stakes were real. And the notion that even after the mass murder of billions of people, a group of survivors would claw hope out of disaster and look for a new home was more than just heartwarming.

The show had some problems, as well. Some of them are typical problems of producing a weekly science fiction television series with 1970s technology and practices. Others were more thematic. The fundamental premise from the beginning was that contemplating disarmament as a step toward peaceful co-existence was the most foolish thing people could do. Given the nuclear stand-off between the U.S. and our NATO allies on one side, and the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies on the other, and the very active policy and treaty debates going on at the time, the show was staking a blatant political position. Related, throughout the original series, the military leaders were shown time and time again to always be right, while civilians (particularly any who advocated non-violent philosophies) were always wrong–and not merely wrong, but naively and disasterously wrong again and again.

Remember that the next time someone claims that sci fi has only become political recently.

While caught up in an individual episode it was easy to ignore those problematic elements. Besides, I loved Commander Adama, he was a hero and a great leader! And his son, Apollo, respected him, and we saw a lot more of Apollo in action on screen and he was clearly a good man, brave, loyal, and so forth. Even the sort-of-rebellious Starbuck respected Adama! Therefore our affection for Adama was not misplaced, right? Except, of course, that the examples of civilians who had a different opinion than the military command tended to be one-dimensional or transparently designed to either be unlikeable or pitiably naive.

So Galactica was hardly nuanced.

I liked it. The idea of fighting on against impossible odds is almost always appealing. People who snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with nothing more than hope, courage, and a bit of cleverness are fun to root for. And Galactica gave us that aplenty.

And you can hardly fault a story for that.

Remembering Doug

A mutual friend once said, “The best way to describe Doug is he epitomizes oops-ishness.” And half the reason that stuck with me (besides being true) is that I simply love the coined word, “oopsishness!” I met Doug back in 1976, shortly after moving to southwest Washington from Colorado. I met him shortly after joining an interdenominational (fundamentalist evangelical) teen touring choir, as we were both placed in the same section. Doug two years younger than I was. He was one of the first guys I had ever met who was nerdier than me–and that’s saying something!

Now, his oopsishness wasn’t just a matter of clumsiness. No, Doug took things to a much higher level. Doug wasn’t dumb, by any means, but sometimes he would be extremely oblivious. He would get himself into strange (and usually hilarious) predicaments without being able to explain afterward exactly how it happened. Which meant people who knew him wound up laughing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or picking their own jaws up from the floor after some of his mishaps. You know that old silent movie scene where a character steps into what appears to be an ordinary puddle of water on a street, but plummets completely out of sight? That actually happened to Doug. It was a flooded basement at his workplace rather than a street, but it happened.

Twice in a single evening. The second time at a different basement nearby.

That hardly scratches the surface, though. No, to really understand how oopsish Doug could be, you have to hear about the Train Crossing Incident.

We’d been out gaming with friends, and Doug was giving me a ride home. I was attending community college part-time and working multiple jobs at the time, and living at my grandparents’ house. I was trying to get the funds together to transfer to a university. Anyway, my grandparents lived in a part of town that was between several mills and the port, so there were a number of train tracks that crossed roads. None of the crossings had gates, but all of them had lights and those clanging bell signals. And because none of the crossings had gates, the trains were required to sound their whistles a lot. Living in that neighborhood, by the way, is where I developed my ability to sleep through just about any noise.

We were driving along a dark road and Doug was enthusiastically telling me a story about some horrible thing that had happened to him recently. Ahead of us was a crossing, there was a train off a ways to our right, sounding its whistle, and the lights and bells of the crossing signal ahead of us were going full blast.

And I realized, suddenly, that Doug wasn’t slowing down. So I said, “Doug! There’s a train coming.”

Doug kept talking, and he’s not slowing down.

I repeated, slightly louder, “Doug! There’s a train! Stop!”

Doug kept talking. We are now close enough that I don’t know if we can stop in time, and the train is awfully close. I exclaimed, “Train! Train! Train! Stop the f–ing car!”

We crossed the tracks. The train was so close to us that as I shouting obscenities and looking out of the passenger window, I couldn’t see the headlight because it was blocked by the roof of the car, but I can count the smashed bugs on the front of the engine.

I was holding on for dear life, absolutely certain the train was going to hit us before we were past.

And then we’re on the otherside and I’m still shouting, and honestly, I don’t know how Doug could hear me over the deafining whistle, but he says, “What are you so upset about?”

“WE NEARLY DIED! DIDN’T YOU SEE THE TRAIN!?!”

I looked at him, and he’s peering at the rearview mirror, his mouth dropped open in a shocked expression, because all he can see is freight cars rushing past fairly close behind us. And then he said, “Wow, where did that train come from?”

Given the physics of the situation and how long Doug’s big ol’ four-door Oldsmobile was, I think the train couldn’t have missed the back bumper by more than an inch.

Doug stopped the car. He sat there, gripping the steering wheel and almost hyperventilating. “I didn’t hear anything. Was the signal working?”

“Yes. Bells clanging, lights flashing, train whistle blow, and me shouting at you to stop!” I replied.

After about a half a minute he says, “Wow,” and he starts laughing as he takes his foot off the brake and we start moving again. “I don’t know how I missed that!”

I was still trying to calm down. Doug seemed sincerely shocked and insisted he hadn’t seen or heard the train or the signals, nor my first several warnings. And I believed him. It fit perfectly with many things I’d seen before. He could recall miniscule details from a movie he had just watched, or a book he had read, but swear he didn’t notice that a door which had been open a few minutes prior was now closed and walk right into it.

I used to love telling this story to both people who had never met Doug, and to folks who knew him. And the thing is, Doug loved telling these kinds of stories about himself, and did so all the time.

As funny as they are in retrospect, the experiences were often painful and terrifying to live through. And then, years later, we got an explanation.

Doug and I hadn’t lived in the same town for some years when I heard that he had become seriously sick and was trying to get on disability. I had last visited him and his wife about eight years previously, but we kept in touch via email. I pinged him to see how things were going, and soon we were on the phone. We laughed a lot, despite the subject matter being so serious.

Originally he had been diagnosed with generic peripheral artery disease, which is most commonly the result of the gradual build up of fatty materials inside the arteries. But they eventually discovered that the underlying cause was a more rare condition, one in which a person has fewer capillaries per volume of tissue to begin with. It was a congental problem he’d had his entire life, it was just getting noticeable as a medical issue as the ordinary build up of fat inside the vessels restricted things further.

In effect, his entire life every organ in his body had struggled with less than optimal levels of oxygen and nutrients because there were literally fewer tiny blood vessels, everywhere. It’s probably the reason that he always caught every virus or sniffle that went around. It also contributed to his longer than usual recovery times when he got injured. And it also meant that under lots of circumstances, his brain would be left with inadequate oxygen. And we think that one of the ways that the brain defends itself from damage in those cases, is to essentially shut down some functions temporarily, until oxygen levels return to normal.

I was getting depressed listening to him describe it, and starting to feel guilty for all the times we had shared those “Doug does something unbelievable weird or dumb” stories.

But Doug didn’t look at it that way at all. “It’s a relief, actually,” he said. “I mean, for years I kept wondering if something was wrong with me, mentally. But finding out that yeah, something is wrong, but it’s medical is a lot easier to accept. It’s not that I’ve got an intellectual deficiency, it’s that my body was dealing with this weird problem we didn’t know about. Literally, part of my brain would be starved of oxygen and shut off!”

Sadly, by the time of this diagnosis, there wasn’t much they could do. He had already suffered a lot of tissue loss not just in the muscles of his extremities, but also throughout his organs. They could slow the progression of the tissue necrosis by keeping him on oxygen, for instance, but the usual techniques for treating arterial disease such as bypass and so forth couldn’t address the underlying issue. The blocked arteries made it worse, but the capillary deficiency would still be there.

We stayed in touch mostly through the magic of the internet until his death just over six years ago. He remained his usual cheerful self throughout the last few years of his life. He always made a joke no matter how bad the news that he was sharing about the latest development was. As he said just about every time he told a story about one of his mishaps, “If you can’t laugh about it, what’s the point?”

Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)!

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

Back in 1981 I decided that what the world needed was a superhero roleplaying game. At the time, there wasn’t much on the market, and the few games that existed barely qualified as a full-fledged gaming system. But I’d been playing in various roleplaying games for a few years, and had been a superhero comic fan for as long as I could remember (my mom was a comics as well as sci fi/fantasy fan before I was born, so I’m a second generation fan). Since the few games I could find weren’t adequate to my needs for playing at superhero, I invented my own game. I originally called in, unimaginatively, Superheroes. And after about a week of writing up some tables and power descriptions, I talked several members of my gaming group into putting together characters. It wasn’t long before I had enough people playing it, that they started recruiting acquaintances. I made changes and improvements to the rules. Over the course of a few months, I typed a couple hundred pages of rules.

By that time I was running three different groups of players on three different nights of every week.

I ran the last game using the system, and set in the same world and continuity, in the year 2000. I want you to think about that for a moment: I ran a roleplaying campaign, a single campaign setting, with a single history, et al, for 19 years. So when people find out that I’ve got a Victorian Steampunk roleplaying campaign that has been running (with the same core players, same core characters, and in the same continuity) for 16 years and they freak out, I have to point out that it isn’t the longest campaign I’ve run.

There was a point where I re-typed all of the rules for my superhero game into a word processor. And I made more updates and changes to the rules, refining things as we ran into situations that within the game. In the early 90s I was thinking that I might still try to publish the system, and I had changed the name to Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)! The problem was that by then, there were several other superhero based role-playing games on the market, and while I still think there are aspects of mine that were superior to those others, there were also aspects that weren’t.

I should mention that I did get the rules well-defined enough that three of my friends who loved to run games set up their own campaigns. So I got to play in my own system and see how it worked from that point of view.

I’m writing about this now because this last weekend I went through some of the shelves in the computer room, and I emptied out all of the three ring binders, pulled out all the spiral notebooks, and so forth that were full of notes and characters and scenario descriptions and so forth, and put them all into recycle. The scary part as I was going emptying all of those binders was how many of the thousands and thousands of pages of material that was in there was handwritten. In my atrocious printing. But usually in pretty colors, because I love unusual ink colors and I had a tendency to color code my notes as I created villains and supporting characters and scenarios. Or wrote up the fictitious history of small countries or crime fighting organizations, and so on.

Several years ago I made a comment to some friends that, since I hadn’t run a game in the system in years, I should toss all those gaming notes. These friends had been players in the game for years. And one of them was horrified at the idea that I would toss all of that history. So I decided not to tell anyone other than my husband before I went through the shelves.

Usually my inner packrat balks at this sort of thing. I expected it to be more of an emotional trial than it was. But the fact that I haven’t actually run a game, nor seriously looked through any of those notes for this campaign, in more than a decade seems to have given me enough emotional distance to just be amused as I recognized some notes in passing.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

As you can see from the photo, there were a lot of binders. Several of those were 4-inch binders, which hold about 800 pages each, and at least two were 5-inch binders, which hold 1000 pages each, plus a bunch of 3-inchers, which since they usually have O-rings usually only hold about 570 pages each. When I said thousands and thousands of pages I wasn’t kidding. Keeping the notes organized in binders was always a bit of a challenge. Many years ago I got in the habit of making a title page for the binders, so I could remember that this binder was full of villains, while this one had notes on our never quite completed magic system, and another had notes for older games, while another had the notes for the most recent games and things I was planning.

And there were about a dozen spiral notebooks and several notepads all filled with even more notes. I generated a lot of material running that game for 19 years.

The notebook names were often based on Far Side comics. At least two were based on Calvin and Hobbes strips. As the pages of notes and characters and scenarios piled up, I’d have to make new binders, while older binders would become part of the archives, rather than something I’d get out all of the time.

It’s a little scary to think about how much fictional history we created during all of those games. I should add that when I said it was a single campaign, that’s slightly misleading. As I said I had at one point several groups playing at once, and I kept them separate mostly by basing their characters in different cities. But it was one fictional world, and we did cross-overs. Plus, since it is comic book superheroes, there were occasional adventures where the entire world was in danger. I also set some of the player groups in different time periods. at one point I had two side groups adventuring during the World War II time period, while original three sets had been playing in “the present” so basically the 80s and 90s. Then I had another side group playing in the 70s for. But all of the groups were set in the same world. And yeah, since I had player characters in different time periods occasionally involved in big global events and so forth, the continuity of my fictitious world got nearly as convoluted as that of the big comic book publishers.

Of the six friends who created characters for my first couple of weeks of playing, three have passed away. Of the others, I still have some contact with two on Facebook. I last ran into the sixth player at a science fiction convention around the year 2000, and he had an absolute melt down when he found out I was gay. My friend, Mark, moved to the town where I lived before moving to Seattle in 1983, I think it was, and joined the campaign. He played various characters for nearly 10 years, I think, with some interruptions since he moved to Seattle about a year before I did. And we’re still friends, now. Maybe I should make him a certificate, because I think he might hold the record of the longest player in that game.

I had a lot of fun, and as far as I know the players did, too.

One person’s fave is another’s wtf – more of why I love sf/f

5thI don’t remember the first time I found a copy of an anthology that proclaimed itself to contain the best science fiction of a particular year. I am also not sure how many of them I had seen and read before I realized that there were multiple publishing houses putting out those annual collections. It was difficult to tell because they had such similar names: “[YEAR]: the World’s Best SF,” or “[YEAR]: the Annual World’s Best Science Fiction,” or “The World’s Best Science Fiction the Year: [YEAR]” or “The Annual [NUMBER] Edition Year’s Best S-F” and so on. And let’s not even get into the fact that 90-some percent of the stories included were written by authors in the U.S., with only a small number of authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, or another English-speaking country getting in.

I was 18 when I went on a buying binge picking up as many editions of the series edited by Donald Wolheim as I could, as I had read a few of his previous collections and found they more often contained several stories I liked than some of the others. Wolheim’s taste was close enough to mine that I could count on several good ones in each collection. And it was good to know an editor I could count on to find good ones. I’d been a little shocked at just how many stories I had disliked in some of the other similarly named collections. When I was younger, I assumed that if the name of the book included “The Best…” that it ought to be true, and thus had a few unpleasant surprises.

picture056_15jul06Of course now it seems obvious that any list of The Best of anything is going to be subjective. When you also understand that in order for a story to be included in one of these collections, the editors have to contact the author or representative and get permission to include their story. For a few decades, every publisher that had a science fiction/fantasy imprint seemed to be publishing one of these annual collections, so they were competing against each other. So if, say 12 stories wound up in one editor’s collection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were the top (in the editor’s opinion) 12 stories published that year, but rather were the 12 out of a longer list which the editor was able to negotiate a deal.

One upside was that the various annual Best of anthologies usually didn’t have any overlap.

I love them, even though there were always at least a few stories that I didn’t like. There was always a story that I did like written by and author whose name I didn’t recognize, giving me someone knew to look for. Another nice thing was the variety of type of story. Even though they were all picked by the same editor, the stories seldom had anything in common. Themed anthologies can be cool, but sometimes they’re a bit hard to get through because when the stories all fall into a single theme and are all picked by the same editor, some can feel a bit repititious.

Another thing I love about all of those competing Best Of book series is that there are thousands and thousands of copies of the books in hardcover and paperback out there in used book stores. So if, like me, you love to browse all the bookseller booths or tables at sci fi cons, or can easily spend hours wondering in a used book store, you are likely to run across some of these little treasure troves at a reasonable price.

The last few years I’ve read lots of blog posts—and listened to some spirited discussions—about the idea of a science fiction/fantasy canon. Books that every fan or every aspiring right should have read. Unfortunately a lot of books from days gone by that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well for younger readers. Heck, sometimes they don’t old up for us old fogies! I still remember the utter horror I felt when I found a copy of a fantasy book that I had absolutely loved when I was 10 or so, only to find some really blatant anti-semitism and problematic treatment of native peoples when I found a copy again as an adult. As a kid, that stuff had sailed right over my head, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that book now without at least a warning.

So I don’t think it’s right to insist that someone isn’t a true fan or doesn’t understand the genre if they haven’t read specific books. But I do think that we benefit from being familiar with the roots of our favorite genres. And I think that all writers benefit from reading broadly and occasionally reading things outside their comfort zones. Which brings us to another thing I like about these old Best Of collections. Select any one at random and you will get a number of short stories written by a bunch of different people. It’s a lot easier to get through a short story that challenges you in one way or another, than to get all the way through a novel. It’s one way to get samples of some of the roots of the genre without amassing a pile of old books many of which not only will you never be interested in reading again, but that you won’t force yourself to get all the way through.

And odds are, you will find at least one story you like a lot. Which may send you looking for more stories by an author you’d never heard of before. That’s always fun.

Not to mention the possibility that a bad story can serve a good purpose, even if it is only an example of the kind of writing you never want to do yourself.

There wolf! There castle! why sf/f doesn’t have to be serious

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

I was fourteen years old when the movie Young Frankenstein was released. The small town where I lived had only one theatre, and it showed two movies each week. One played Monday through Thursday, I believe, and the other would play Friday through Sunday, sometimes with a matinee Saturday afternoon (but not always). No matter how sold out any show was, it didn’t stay past its scheduled three or four day run.

And I was, as far as I could tell, one of the few kids in my class on the Monday morning after the movie had shown, who hadn’t seen it. If the film was shown on network television in the next couple of years, I didn’t manage to see it. After my folks divorced and my mom, one sister, and I moved 1200 miles away, one of my new friends mentioned that Young Frankenstein had been re-released to theaters and was playing downtown. Back in the days before ubiquitous cable, movies on tape or disc, or the internet, movies were often re-released into theaters.

When I mentioned that I’d never seen it, my friends were aghast. The next thing I knew, we were piling into someone’s car and driving to the theatre. I loved the movie. I loved it so much, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept telling anyone who would listen to me about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who insists that his last name is pronounced Frohnkensteen, and is ashamed of his crazy grandfather’s work; but upon finding said grandfather’s journal becomes obsessed with bringing a dead man back to life, and the zany misadventures that follow.

My mom thought it sounded fun. And so a night or two later, I found myself standing in line at the theatre once more, this time with my mom and little sister.

The movie has more than a few jokes based on sexual innuendoes, which it didn’t even occur to me might not be appropriate for my eleven-year-old sister, let alone what Mom might think of it. And both of them were laughing at all the same places I was, so everything was going fine. Until we reached the point where the Creature kidnaps Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth.

And then, panic started to set in. Because what happens next is that the Creature and Elizabeth have sex (in a scene that is a casebook example of pop culture’s long entanglement with rape culture). During which Elizabeth falls in love with the Creature because he has an enormous “schwanzstucker.”

Mom was a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist. Yes, she was also a science fiction fan, but her open-mindedness only went so far. And I had brought her and my little sister to a movie where a central turning point of one of the subplots is a woman falling in love with a stranger because of the size of his penis.

I was quite certain that I was going to wind up being grounded for life. Obviously Mom was going to be very upset. And I should have realized that she would be and mentioned the scene as soon as she suggested we go see the movie! I sunk down in my seat, bracing for an angry outburst.

The scene with the Creature began, and I just sank down lower in my seat. Then when the sex happens (the movie was rated PG, so you don’t even see either character get undressed, it’s only implied that the Creature unzipped his pants), and Madeline Kahn, who played Elizabeth starts singing in an exaggerated operatic style, “Oh! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!”

Mom started laughing. I looked over, and she wasn’t merely chuckling. She was guffawing loudly, covering her mouth to try not to disturb the rest of the audience (many of whom were laughing, but not that hard) and doubling over like she was going to fall out of her seat. A minute or two later her laughter subsided and she was wiping her eyes. She leaned over and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t have brought your little sister to see this!”

My sister asked mom what was so funny, and mom started laughing again.

A day or so later Mom had a slightly more serious talk with me about the importance of evaluating shows and books and such I might let my sister see as to whether they were appropriate, but she wasn’t angry. She said the only other thing she was disappointed in about the show was that we couldn’t immediately re-watch the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein right afterward.

Some time later a pair of the friends who took me to the film the first time re-enacted the “Need a hand?” “No, thanks! Have one,” scene when Mom was around, and she asked them to do it again. And they started to, but it morphed into a re-enactment of the scene in the blind man’s cottage instead. For the rest of the evening we were quoting funny lines from the film at each other. I think it was that evening that Mom explained her view of all the ways that the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had alluded to love, romance, and even sex. Though we stayed away from any mention of the Creature’s schwanzstucker.

It should come as no surprise that two of the friends who were so aghast that I had never seen Young Frankenstein were the same pair who, a couple years later, dragged me to my first performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the sexual situations in Young Frankenstein are hetero and heteronormative, but there was still a strain of the transgressive running throughout. Young Frankenstein didn’t have the same effect on my own self awareness as Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important landmark in my understanding of the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.

And I wasn’t the only nerd to think so. The year after it was released, Young Frankenstein won the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. And the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a Nebula Award for the screenplay. The film also won four Saturn Awards. The film displays a great deal of fondness for the Universal Frankenstein films (there’s even a line of dialog about how the village elders have endured all of this five times before, though that’s a miscount since the Universal series actually have five: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Frankenstein). Young Frankenstein was a humorous parody, yes, but it also served as both a deconstruction and homage at the same time.

And it’s a funny film! And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

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