On Bullying — A Spirit Day Post

October 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm (real life) (, )

I don’t remember enough details of my childhood bullying.

I remember a few events, of course. I remember, for instance, the day of pre-school when I was told by a classmate that I was “too big” to sit at her table.

I remember kindergarten, when bully S decided to start a “cool kids” club, only letting in the elite few. She then decided to extend her invitations to the uncool — and proceeded to use them as personal servants, humiliating them as a cost of membership. When I was invited into the club as part of the second group and used my uncool servant-role of messenger to pass secret messages between my friend L (assigned by S to sit alone on the blacktop all through recess) and his friend C across the playground, I earned an enemy for life. We were 5.

I remember third and fourth grade, when my group of “friends” regularly mocked and excluded me from activities, manipulating me however they could. I remember fifth grade, when Mean Girls Group #2 did the same. I remember frenemy N deciding my best friend and I weren’t interesting enough to participate in the rest of her sleepover birthday party, banishing us to another room for the night.

I remember being in 7th grade and accidentally sneezing on a popular girl, then faking sick and going home so I wouldn’t have to experience the torment that was sure to come. I remember high school, when I rearranged my routes to and from classes to avoid bully H, who was sure to push me in the hallway while muttering humiliating insults. I remember being afraid to change in the locker room. I remember being afraid of random group assignments for class projects. I remember feeling like who I was — too heavy, too smart, too shy — was going to consign me to a life of lonely self-hatred.

And this isn’t even including the cyber-bullying I experienced as the internet gained prominence toward the end of my time in high school. Or the teacher-bullying I experienced at the hands of my elementary school gym teacher.

But with every abortive attempt I’ve made to write this article, I’ve realized that I don’t remember half of what I know I went through. I remember my elementary, middle, and high school years as a time of constant terror. I remember the feeling of not fitting in. I remember being sure that everyone hated me. I remember feeling constantly suspicious of my friends’ motives in hanging out with me, even as I formed a solid social circle in 6th grade that lasted all through high school and remains mostly intact today. I remember long nights playing Hanson’s “Weird” on repeat as it spoke to my tortured soul — “Isn’t it strange, how we all feel a little bit weird sometimes?”. But I’ve repressed most of the specific events, despite my generally amazing powers of recall. And I think that says a lot about how those experiences affected me — and continue to affect me today.

I’m 24 years old. I haven’t been seriously bullied since I left high school. But in the 6 and a half years since, the scars those first 15 years left have not faded. I can’t walk past a group of laughing or whispering people without assuming they’re laughing at me. I automatically assume every person I meet is on the precipice of mocking me, that they already hate me the second they see me. It takes me a very, very long time to believe that a new acquaintance genuinely likes me. When I’m invited to parties by anyone other than a close friend, I spend the days leading up to the event in a state of paranoia, wondering if it’s some trick the party-throwers are playing, like I’m going to be greeted at the door by a bucket of blood. And when I run into some of those childhood bullies, I freeze up and begin to hyperventilate, fending off a full-fledged panic attack. I have never joined my hometown friends at a certain local bar because I know bully S is a regular, and even though I have not spoken to her in 6 years, her specter haunts me.

Today is Spirit Day. It’s a day for recognizing the effects of bullying, specifically on LGBT youth, in the wake of prominent LGBT teen suicides. In honor of that day, I’m wearing purple, as well as a rainbow “ALLY” pin. I’m not LGBT (though more than half of my high school friends were), but I know from experience what bullying can do to a person, whatever the impetus for that torture. And I do believe the message of “It Gets Better.” The fact that I’ve lived my life without torment for the past 6 years is testament to that. Those are words that need to be said to kids on the brink.

But more importantly, we NEED to recognize the effect bullying has — and stamp it out before it happens. Because while many children thankfully do NOT attempt suicide and survive the bullying to live to adulthood, those experiences and memories don’t go away, even if they’re repressed. And I don’t want any other child to have to go through what I did. Nor do I want children to experience the bullying my brother endured — bullying that led his school’s administration to suggest that HE, not the bullies, should seek therapy so he might better “fit in.” Or the bullying my mother endured, bullying severe enough that she had to change schools in elementary school — in the early 1960s. Bullying at all ages is not new, no matter what certain articles might imply. But the more aware we become of its horrors and its effects on children, the less excuse we have not to DO something about bullying. Wearing purple is a start, but it’s not enough. We cannot afford to ignore this problem. And telling my story here, today, is my first small contribution to that effort.

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And He Shall Be Levon

September 30, 2010 at 10:50 pm (Fiction) (, , )

The other night, I was listening to Elton John’s Levon. (Linked here because apparently the whole world didn’t grow up listening to gay pop from the 1970s.) And then… this poured out of me.

Profiles in Heroism: Levon Tostig

Levon Tostig was not born into a world of promise. As one of the first children to arrive after the Infection Event, Levon entered a world of uncertainty, tumbling from his mother’s womb on the very day this newspaper declared the war against the Infected begun. The day was Christmas, but no one was celebrating. God had quite obviously abandoned our kind.

Levon grew up amid the fearful and poverty-stricken in a government holding center in Springfield, where his father, Alvin, served as a guard. Emergency drills were a part of his daily routine from his earliest conscious moments, but that didn’t stop the young, curious Levon from exploring the edges of the compound one day during his twelfth year. He still bears the scars of the bite he received during the resulting Infected attack, a bite that necessitated the amputation of three fingers on his right hand. Levon has never sought to hide this wound, however. If anything, he has flaunted his deformed hand, wearing it proudly as evidence of his ability to survive the worst that fate might throw at him.

That pride would serve Levon, and all humankind, quite well in the following years. Unwilling to accept the state of constant fear and deep despair under which humanity was living at the time, Levon devoted himself to scientific study and sought a fool-proof way to fight the Infected without the use of imprecise, ineffective weaponry. It was through a process of trial and error, during which he managed to escape death by inches on a daily basis, that he discovered the scientific fact that has dictated our interactions with the Infected ever since: the toxicity of helium to the creatures’ bodies.

Levon would go on to develop the safest and most effective mechanism for distributing helium. He calculated the precise amount of gas necessary to fill a balloon that, when popped, would eject the helium into the space immediately surrounding the Infected’s body, destroying it instantly. Before long he’d formed the innocuously-named Levon Cartoon Balloon Industries, a company that is, today, among the most profitable corporations in the world. By selling his weaponized helium balloons at reasonable rates to both private citizens and the military establishment, Levon enabled the human race to turn an important corner in our ongoing war against the Infected.

As Levon’s innovation spread across the globe and humans cautiously began to rebuild civilization, Levon himself retreated to a largely private life, marrying an old sweetheart from his childhood holding center and later welcoming their son, Jesus. The name was a provocative one, spurring popular debate about Levon’s alleged hubris, but when asked about its intent Levon has always evaded the question, claiming to have simply liked the name.

Jesus, now eighteen and a graduate of Springfield Preparatory High School, was poised to inherit the family business upon Levon’s retirement. Much of his childhood had been spent helping his father, blowing up balloons at their flagship store on Springfield’s Main Street. Jesus, however, chose a different career path: he was among the first to volunteer for the Venusian mission that scientists believe could ultimately create a viable alternative to our own Infection-scarred planet. While Levon has stated that he respects his son’s decision, he has been curiously silent on the topic of the Venus expedition itself and has dodged all questions about the longevity of his company in the absence of a family heir.

These days, Levon lives humbly despite his abundant wealth, choosing to reside alone (his wife, Amy, passed away several years ago) in a dilapidated garage on a pre-Infection highway at the edge of Springfield. He claims that the highway reminds him of all that’s left to accomplish in our brave new world. Though most people alive today, Levon included, have no direct memory of the world Before, Levon believes our war will not truly be won until we have reestablished our societies as they once were, before the gripping fear of the Infected overtook all other emotional impetuses. Notoriously protective of his money as he may be, Levon has recently instructed his corporation to expand beyond the confines of helium production to begin studying the best methods for bolstering global housing and transportation infrastructure.

We can only hope that the man who gave us helium still has many good years ahead of him – years in which he may very well change the world all over again.

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An Open Letter to Meg Whitman

September 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm (real life) (, , )

There doesn’t seem to be any direct way to contact Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for Governor of California. Given that inaccessibility, I’m going to post publicly what would have been a private e-mail or letter. Ms. Whitman, if you see this, feel free to contact me at throughthebrush@gmail.com

Dear Ms. Whitman,

My name is Jennifer Smith. I graduated from Princeton University after the 2007-2008 year, which also happened to be the year of the grand opening of the Whitman residential college, whose construction was largely funded by your generous contributions. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings, and at the time I was proud to be the very first Princeton student to choose a room in Whitman College. When you spoke in the courtyard to dedicate the college, I happily attended the gathering. I still have my Whitman stationery, my Whitman sweatshirt, and my fond memories of the cozy bedroom, dining hall, and study rooms where I spent so much time that year.

I preface my letter with all of this information to cast in sharp relief my disappointment in your stated platforms as a candidate for governor of California — in particular your support for Proposition 8, which denies the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

As a Princeton student, I was heavily involved in the Pride Alliance, the LGBT organization on campus. LGBT rights have always been very dear to my heart, for I see no reason that my closest friends shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges I myself possess. I fondly remember late nights in college spent hanging up posters and encouraging activism, including pro-same-sex marriage activism, before I returned to the haven of my dorm in Whitman College. Now, I find that you are using the power of your wealth – the very wealth I myself benefited from – to drive a campaign that counts among its aims the barring of American citizens from the benefits of full equality under the law. This is wealth that could be better used to support any number of causes or platforms — particularly to bolster California’s schools, which are in crisis. As a Whitman resident, I believed you to be a self-evident supporter of education, but I see now that bigotry and the power it endows is more important to you.

There was a time I was proud to be a resident of Whitman College. But your recent actions have made me ashamed – ashamed that I took advantage of your donation, ashamed that the money that is funding your prejudiced political campaign also paid for my bed. I don’t want to feel this shame. I want to appreciate your generous gifts . But until you reject bigotry and hate, my shame will endure.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Smith
Graduate Student in Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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9/11

September 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm (Reflection)

I was fifteen years old on September 11th, 2001. When the planes hit the towers, I was probably in English class, though in the confusion of the immediate aftermath no one in the school knew anything for at least another hour. During 4th period chemistry class, an announcement came over the intercom from the principal: all students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center were to come to the library. That’s when we knew something was wrong.

I lived in New Jersey, in a town with a big commuter population. Lots of kids’ parents worked in downtown NYC. We were all worried when the announcement came, but our chemistry teacher, looking nervous, just said, “A plane hit one of the towers. It was probably an accident.” We continued with class.

Fifth period was lunch. I sat with my friends as a second announcement declared all after-school activities canceled for the day. Rumors flew around the cafeteria, and I heard the word “terrorists” thrown out for the first time. My friend Lauren, who knew no more about the situation than I did, yelled, “Damn you, terrorists! You made them cancel band practice!” We all laughed.

It wasn’t until 6th period history that I got information. I will always be thankful to my 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Tomczyk, for going against the school’s orders and giving us details. We didn’t have live TV in our classrooms, and the only way we were going to learn anything was if a teacher told us. Mrs. Tomczyk believed we had a right to know, and so she closed the door and told us.

When she said the towers had fallen, I let out a sharp laugh. I didn’t think it was funny, of course. But my instinctive physical reaction was one of disbelief. Gone? How could they be gone? At the time, we still didn’t know how severe the damage would be to the rest of the downtown area. A completely apocalyptic image surfaced in my mind, and it’s still one I hold, even years later. We spent the whole class discussing what happened, acting as support for each other. We didn’t learn history that day. We were living it.

The next period was gym, but I didn’t stay — my mom came and picked me up from school. She’s a volunteer at heart, and she wanted to be there at the elementary and middle schools to help the kids who might not have anyone to go home to. So she wanted me and my younger brother to be home first and foremost, so she would be free to help others. I planted myself in front of the TV and watched the news, and saw the images for the first time.

My history homework that night was to read Patrick Henry’s most famous speech. “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I cried.

I did not personally know anyone killed in the attacks. But one of my best friends lost a cousin. A girl a year below me, who’d lived in my neighborhood and worked with me on the school newspaper, lost her older brother. The tragedy was very immediate in our town, and we’re lucky we didn’t lose more people.

So though it’s been 9 years, and all that’s happened since has been hard to separate from the memories of that day, it’s still vivid in my mind, and still horrifying. I still feel ill on this day, morose and contemplative. And I thought it might be best for me to share that. This is the first 9/11 I’ve spent outside of New Jersey, and I find myself wishing I was on the east coast, to share the experience with others who lived it like I did. But, since I can’t do that, I felt I should at least share my experience with all of you.

The day after the attacks, an AP reporter came into that same history classroom to write an article about student reaction. The article is only available behind a paywall now — and is, frankly, some pretty terrible journalism — but I long ago copied and pasted it into a document, and I share it now, below the cut, for posterity.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Underrated TV: NBC’s Mercy

August 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , )

It’s a bold statement, but I’ll make it: NBC’s hospital drama Mercy was one of the best shows on television last season.

This isn’t, apparently, a very popular opinion. The show, which chronicled the lives of three friends working as nurses in a Jersey City hospital, had consistently low ratings and failed to be renewed for a second season — an especially disappointing state of affairs, since season one ended on a major cliffhanger. But the DVD boxset of the first season comes out this week, and I’d like to provide a handful of compelling reasons for picking it up, if you’ve got cash to spare.

1.) The cast. I decided to watch Mercy before I knew anything about the premise, simply because of the cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, best known as Dawn on Buffy, plays Chloe, the newest nurse in the hospital, and I’ve always been fond of her. Those who were annoyed by Dawn would be smart to give Trachtenberg a second chance, especially here, in her first truly mature role. (Where “mature” means “playing a responsible adult with a job,” not the few sex comedy roles she took to prove she wasn’t a little girl anymore.) Jamie Lee Kirchner, meanwhile, is an actress I was extremely impressed by when I saw her in Broadway’s RENT (as Mimi), and she’s fabulous here as Sonia, the protagonist’s best friend. I hadn’t previously heard of Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays the show’s main protagonist, Iraq veteran Veronica, but she turned out to be fantastic, and her mom is played by the always-amazing Kate Mulgrew. The ensemble is great, too — Guillermo Diaz as another nurse/friend of the protagonists, Diego Klattenhoff as Veronica’s husband, James Tupper as Veronica’s wartime fling, and James LeGros as an arrogant doctor. If you can stand James Van Der Beek’s role as an antagonist in the later episodes of the series, the cast is pretty much perfect.

2.) The feminism. What impressed me most about Mercy, from day one, was the way it was structured around three women who were actually believable friends, rather than catty, backstabbing rivals. The show always passed the Bechdel Test as the women talked to each other about work, about their families, about their hobbies, and, yes, about the men in their lives. And while romantic plots existed (and were hit-or-miss), they were never the focus of the show. Unlike the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, these characters never seemed to be spending time talking about their sex lives when they could have been treating patients — they saved that for the bar after work. Mercy is a show about nurses doing their jobs, and while I can’t comment on the accuracy of the medicine, I always appreciated that the show never implied that nurses were in any way “lesser” than doctors. In fact, the show reminds us, they’re the ones who really do the hard work.

3.) The protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Veronica Callahan. First and foremost, she’s a female war veteran with very obvious, and acknowledged, post-traumatic stress disorder. She may have been primarily on the medical side of the war, but the show acknowledges that even those in the “safer” jobs in the military are under enormous amounts of stress and danger in such unpredictable battlefields. Veronica is a mess — she has flashbacks and fears, she has a temper that gets her in trouble, and she’s an alcoholic on top of everything else — but she’s also strong-willed, stubborn, and determined to do her job. Her love triangle plot, while handled better than it would be on most shows, is almost a disappointment, simply because it’s the least interesting part of her character. The much more interesting narrative is that of a young woman trying to make a place for herself in the world after trauma, and luckily that’s the narrative the show focuses on.

4.) The sense of place. Mercy is set in Jersey City, a major city in my own home state, so I feel qualified to say that the way in which the show uses its location is more akin to shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or New York cop shows than to medical dramas like last season’s abysmal Pittsburgh-set Three Rivers or House (which exists in a Princeton, New Jersey I don’t recognize at all, as a 4-year resident of the town). The Jersey City of Mercy feels absolutely real and absolutely integral to the plot, from the race and class tensions to Veronica’s Irish-American cultural identity to the bars they hang out at after work. While others might not have the same feeling of identification with the setting, anyone can appreciate the show’s strong sense of place, which only serves to make the universe richer and more believable.

5.) The stories. While Mercy does have a tendency to dip into melodrama, its stories are, on the whole, tight and compelling. While Veronica is clearly the protagonist, Chloe and Sonia both get clear arcs over the course of the season and important stories to themselves, and the ensemble is always well-used. (And diverse — Guillermo Diaz has great scenes as a gay, Hispanic male nurse, and Malaysian actress K.K. Moggie does an excellent job as an initially unsympathetic doctor whose layers emerge as she interacts with the other characters.) The medical plots are, I’m sure, as inaccurate as any TV medicine, but the emotional moments with the patients always feel earned, rather than hokey or a little too conveniently related to the characters’ personal dramas. Because the focus is placed so much on the fact that the characters are nurses, those stories serve as character moments in and of themselves, instead of as manipulative parallels.

If anything I’ve talked about piques your interest, I highly suggest checking out the first season on DVD. You can find it here on Amazon or in any local retailer. I doubt DVD sales will rescusitate the show, but if just a few more people got to experience the joy that is season one, I’ll consider my advertisement a success.

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The Problem with American Idiot

July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm (Review) (, , , )

Broadway’s American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the best Green Day cover band concert you could ever imagine. The performers belt the record’s songs with theatrical ease, backed by an expert on-stage band. They transform solo tunes into duets and group numbers, adding new layers to the familiar music. Behind the performers, a magnificent set rises into the rafters, full of staircases and ladders and swings and wires constructed for the elaborate dance sequences that accompany the songs. Dozens of television sets mounted on the walls add an extra touch, displaying appropriate (or purposely discordant) images and mingling with the stage lights to dazzle the audience. It is, by all rights, an audio-visual spectacular of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, American Idiot purports to be more than a concert, and its successes on the musical front are met by equally great failures in the arenas of plot and character.

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “jukebox musicals,” musicals that construct a story around non-theatrical music from a particular popular artist or artists. Mamma Mia is perhaps the most famous example, mixing as it does a wholly original story with pop hits by ABBA. The story is actually lovely, but the music is so ill-fitting, and so antithetical to the needs of musical theater, that the play falls apart. The lyrics don’t move the plot along, and the musical sequences feel like jarring interruptions of the story rather than natural outcroppings from it. When music is not written for the theater, it rarely works in the context of a play.

Given this history, I was wary of American Idiot at first. But a number of factors differentiate it from the garden-variety jukebox musical. For one thing, it’s based on a concept album that always had some amount of narrative structure to it. For another, the play was conceived, and co-written, by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This isn’t the case of a nebulous outsider trying to squeeze an artist’s oeuvre into a play; instead, it’s more like The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical created by those who wrote the music to begin with. With these factors in mind – and with an explosive Tony Awards performance in my recent memory – I decided to give the show a shot.

(Spoilers for the play abound from this point on.)

But some of my initial reservations proved accurate. While American Idiot, as an album, does have a narrative structure, the songs are not inherently theatrical. The lyrics are both too repetitive and too complicated – and too abstract, in many cases – to really move a story along, because only viewers who have memorized the songs before attending the show can follow every word. I knew several of the songs in the production going into the play, but not well enough to figure out all the metaphoric intricacies of the lyrics in the moment. Musical lyrics can certainly be complex – just ask Stephen Sondheim – but Green Day’s songs lack a directness and strong narrative quality that songs written for plays need.

This problem was compounded by the fact that, unlike Mamma Mia, there are very few moments in American Idiot that are not musical. Characters say a few words between songs – largely in letters written to each other – but for the most part the play is the music, and that makes it very hard to truly grasp the narrative of the story. I’m sure that fans who have seen the play many times were able to get more out of the story than I did, but repeated viewings shouldn’t be necessary to understand a piece of entertainment that costs $40 or more each time.

And then there was the story itself, and the characters. While American Idiot, as an album, serves as a fascinating, complex indictment of the Bush administration and the problems of life in early 21st century America, the play is basically a story about how very hard it is to be a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied 20-something guy living in the suburbs. And while I’m not opposed to stories about people with that amount of privilege (if I were, I would have to discount about 80% of all Western media), the story told here only serves to highlight how ludicrously selfish and stupid its characters are.

The three protagonists – Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) – are long-time friends still living at home, spending all their time drinking and smoking pot and playing video games. Suddenly seized by the need to leave their “empty” suburban lives, the friends decide to move to the big city and see the “real world.” Unfortunately, Will’s girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) reveals she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay home to take care of the baby. Johnny and Tunny still follow through with their plan, but Tunny, depressed and aimless, winds up joining the army and going to Iraq, leaving Johnny alone to sink into a life of drug abuse. After the death of Johnny’s (possibly metaphorical) drug dealer, the loss of Tunny’s leg in the war, and the separation of Will from his wife, the three friends reunite in their hometown to close out the play.

The fact that I was able to describe the entire plot in that tiny paragraph says something about how thin the story is. It’s also impossible for me to give a fuller description of the characters’ personalities, because, since they’re only expressed through non-theatrical, poorly-functioning songs, they essentially have none, no matter how hard the (very competent) actors tried. The only character I felt anything for was Tunny, since his wartime trials and tribulations are much more serious and sympathetic than the completely self-inflicted, selfish misery his friends go through. But he still lacked any real personality, and I realized partway through the play that I only felt anything for him because I was mentally inserting details of Stark Sands’ military character from HBO’s Generation Kill.

Then there’s the play’s women problem. While the leads are all white, Johnny’s love interest, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Tunny’s war nurse/love interest, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) are women of color. Neither has any more personality than the leads, which I wouldn’t have expected, but unlike the leads, they don’t get the opportunity to express anything from their own point of view – they don’t even have actual names — and thus become little more than fetish objects for the men. This is especially problematic in one scene, in which Tunny hallucinates his nurse dressed in a burqa, which she sexily strips off to reveal a stereotypical midriff-baring harem costume. Not only is she a fetish object, but she’s a fetish object representing a stereotypical image of the very real women of the Middle East.

I’m a huge fan of RENT, and American Idiot, with its rock score, disaffected young characters, and drug-filled urban setting, has been called RENT’s spiritual descendent. But whatever RENT’s flaws – and I’m not blind enough to claim it has none – its cast features characters across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic background, and they all possess agency and express themselves through their own point of view. American Idiot has none of that, and the abundant privilege of its protagonists makes it extraordinarily difficult to relate to them, or believe their protests. The American government and culture they’re lambasting is harming them least of all the people that populate the country, and they’re completely unaware of the irony. They sing, “maybe I’m the faggot America,” symbolic of their inability to fit in, but it only highlights the fact that they do fit in – unlike the gay (or non-white, lower class, etc. etc.) Americans who are completely absent from the play. What works in Green Day’s album – which is, understandably, from the perspective of only one singer – comes off as blind and borderline offensive on the stage.

I hesitate to completely lambast the show, since, as I noted, the staging and technical elements, performances, and music are all spectacular. But without a strong story or characters to hang those elements on, American Idiot is little more than a sparkling, charismatic failure.

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Original Fiction: Underneath (inspired by Mighty Kate)

July 8, 2010 at 2:29 pm (Uncategorized)

Mighty Kate is a NY/NJ-based singer-songwriter of phenomenal talent. I’ve seen her perform live on countless occasions, and I never leave the venue without a smile on my face. And today happens to be her birthday. So, in honor of that happy occasion, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on this blog — post a piece of original fiction.

This story (beyond the obvious fairy tale source material) was inspired by Mighty Kate’s song Underneath, and was written for a scrapbook project a group of fans put together in honor of the release of her latest album. If you like the song, or my story, I highly encourage you to check out that album — you can buy it on her site, on iTunes, or on Amazon.

In the meantime, here’s my story, which only Mighty Kate and the other scrapbook fans have seen before. Happy Birthday, Katy!

Underneath
By Jennifer Margret Smith

Underfed

For weeks I have been underfed. No food is left in our cupboards – no bread in the breadbox, no meat in the larder. My brother crumbles the last stale roll to mark our path, but the birds are the only creatures who find supper that day. Can we be blamed for taking our share, when a bounty comes upon us? Can we be blamed for devouring marzipan and peppermint without a moment’s thought to anything but the growling in our bellies?

The witch of the gingerbread house is a harsh jailer, a cruel mistress, and my brother thinks he is clever to trick her old eyes into believing a bone is his flesh, saving our lives one day at a time. But he sits in a cage suspended on high while I roam freely with my spoon and my apron, and it is he who gapes between his bars as I push the old witch with all of my strength into her own oven.

I will never go hungry again.

Under the Covers

I am under the covers, but there is something under me. I lie still, poised in limbo between twenty feather comforters and twenty feather mattresses. Somewhere, far below the downy fringes and sharp spines of the feathers, lies a tiny object so round and so hard that I toss and turn above it, exhausted by the effort to find my way past the distraction to the sandman’s realm.

The next morning, I don’t wish to complain. I came to this castle bedraggled, my ringlets sodden, desperate for shelter with no proof of my identity. The keepers’ kindness is a blessing I can only hope to repay. But my eyes rest above dark sunken pools, my lack of slumber evident, and when the lady of the house raises the obvious query, I confess the truth, hoping for her forgiveness for my criticism of her hospitality.

The delight in her eyes is a surprise, but one I welcome gladly.

Unappreciated

I wake at dawn each day with a broom already in my hand. The quiet night has allowed the sediment of life to settle, and it’s my duty to sweep it away, to crumble the cobwebs to dust and clear out the corners with a fine brush. Then there’s the tea to set out, the china to rinse, the candlesticks to polish, the floor to scrub, the petticoats to beat with a rock on the banks of the stream. And of course, above all, there are the cinders, the fine dust that clings to my dress and hair and skin as I scoop them from the fireplace. All this for little more than a curt nod at best, a sneering criticism and raised hand at worst. I am unappreciated.

But I do not complain. To complain would be to invite the wrath of those who enslave me, to increase their abuses a thousandfold. I have no desire to anger my stepmother, with her cruel eyes and thin lips; I have no desire to irritate the stepsisters who compete for my dutiful attentions. I merely acquiesce, content in the knowledge that someday my patience and resilience must be rewarded. Someday I will rise above this prison of drudgery. Someday I will encounter those who will appreciate me every bit as much as my family does not.

When the fairy arrives, I know my faith was sound.

Undetected

I am undetected, here in the woods. I have run far beyond the safe paths, the well-known trees and brambles of my childhood, past bears and deer and rabbits and all manner of creatures, in search of a single cabin. I have created a new life – a life of service, true, but a life perhaps more real than my life back at court. Here my work holds meaning, as I prepare seven tiny men each day for their trips down to the mines. If they scrape at underground walls each day for the hopes of a single gemstone’s discovery, what hardship is it for me to make their beds and prepare their dinner? I am useful, and in my simple clothes and tangled hair, I am unrecognizable.

When she finds me, years later, I know that only magic could have led her to this hidden place. Her magics are powerful, her mirror most of all, and perhaps I can never truly hide. But the apple is red, and plump, and I am prepared for its poison. I fall to the floor, the world narrowing to one black point, and then I am placed in glass.

In that moment between life and half-life, I am more undetected than I have ever been, and I know I have beaten her game.

Undaunted

I am undaunted. The wolf holds no power over me. His voice howls in the night, but I know my mission. Grandmother’s needs will wait for no man, no woman, no wolf, and the paths are circuitous. I know what I must do. I step from the path, trampling through the brush to my destination, and when the wolf arrives I am prepared, wrapping my red cloak around me in feigned innocence as he points to the beauty of the flowers.

At Grandmother’s house I see him again, wearing her bonnet and dress. His eyes are cruel, his teeth long and sharp, but my undaunted voice carries through the woods to a huntsman nearby, his axe the perfect weapon for the deed. Grandmother is saved, the wolf’s belly filled with rocks, and I lay out the bounty of my basket, sure in the ultimate goodness my actions have wrought.

When I return home, days later, through the same winding woods, the howls of the wolf’s brethren bring a cruel smile to my lips.

Uncommon

They say he is uncommon, but I am uncommon as well. I am the daughter who begged for a rose as a gift, rather than finery; I am the daughter who left the comfort of my home and family to join this beast in his woodland castle. I am the odd one, the strange one; that’s what my sisters always said.

Here, though, even the uncommon is common – enchanted rooms, invisible servants, and my beast, a terror of fur and fangs whose voice is sweet as honey and manners impeccable. He has become my friend, and while I will not acquiesce to his proposals, he is a comfort at my side. I do not wish to leave him; only my love for my family propels me to visit my home again.

When I return, to a beast half-dead with sorrow, I can only hope my uncommon tears will produce uncommon magics.

Unreleased

I will remain forever unreleased. High in this tower I sit, day by day, braiding the hair which has grown long enough to snake around the room five times. I have read my witch-mother’s books a dozen times each, have eaten each of my meals with mechanical steadiness. Even as the pain sears my brain from the tugging at my long braid, I appreciate the times my witch-mother visits, breaking up the monotony of my days.

He is nothing special. A prince, he claims, but I have no way to prove that truth or lie; I know little of princes beyond the few words my witch-mother has shared. But he is the first to see me as something other than inaccessible, a faraway untouchable beauty to serenade for just as long as it takes my witch-mother to destroy him. His determination flatters me, plants the first small seeds of hope in my chest, and when he climbs I don’t even feel pain.

When my witch-mother comes, with her long scissors and her promises of destruction, it is too late. I have already begun to imagine a future of freedom.

Underwater

I am underwater, but I do not wish to be. Far above the crest of the waves lies another world, a world of sands and grasses that do not shift with the tides, a land of solid tables and marble floors and dancing. A land of legs and feet and tiny little toes. A land of sweet princes whose arms are too weak for swimming.

I have been warned of the Sea Witch, but I am heedless. The others do not know what it means to feel trapped in one’s own form, to look at one’s scales and fins as foreign impositions. They do not know what it means to crave running, to crave dancing, to crave the affection of one who could never love a creature of the waves. I would cut out my own tongue to make it so.

I may die, may evaporate to seafoam at the end of all this, but I cannot be underwater a moment longer.

Unaffected

For sixteen years of my life, I believe I am unaffected. I have heard rumors of a curse, placed upon me at birth, a curse that would lead me to sleep for one hundred years. But no one has told me how this curse might come about. “I have taken care of it,” my father says, when I ask him. The kingdom has been cleansed; I am in no danger.

Yet I remain curious. I have led a charmed life, protected from any scrape or bruise. Nothing can touch me in my father’s kingdom. Even my floors are pillowed, my food pre-cut so I will never see a knife. I yearn for adventure, for risk, for danger, if only to feel, for once, that the outside world has any effect upon me at all.

When I find the spinning wheel, glorious in its rhythm, its spindle sparkling sharp, my fingers reach out unbidden, prepared at last to feel.

Undefeated

I despair, but I am undefeated. I will find a way out of this mess into which my father’s boasting has let me. In this room full of straw, I will find a way to produce gold. My resilience is my greatest strength, and it has carried me this far. So when the little man comes, I know he is the reward for my resilience. I shower him with gifts and promises, and he showers me with gold.

Years later, I sit with my newborn son in my lap, remembering that promise made long ago. My resilience has led me to this place as queen of a kingdom, and it will not fail me now. I am thankful for the man’s assistance, but he has had his payments. He will not take this from me as well. And so I send out my spies in the dark of night, searching for a hole in the clause.

He flees when he hears his name, his face a mask of rage above his flying ladle, and I hold my son tightly to my chest, secure in the certainty that I will never know defeat.

I am an undisputed ace in the hole.
I am an undeniable story untold.
I am underneath.

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An Autobiographical Trip through Kavalier and Clay

June 30, 2010 at 10:59 am (Reflection) ()

I have a theory about fiction. It started as a theory about Pixar movies, but I’ve since expanded it to encompass all published fiction in all media. And that theory is this: every piece of fiction is uniquely attuned to certain people, in specific ways that do not apply more broadly.

This isn’t to say that other people can’t enjoy fiction that isn’t attuned to them. Millions of people loved Wall-E. But Wall-E wasn’t specifically attuned to millions of people. It was made for people like my friend Anika, who loves robot romances and environmentalism, and my friend Becky, who loves dystopian post-apocalyptic futures and Hello, Dolly. My friends’ specific and seemingly-random combinations of interests brought them extra joy as they watched Wall-E, even as millions of other moviegoers had a perfectly fine time enjoying the animation and the love story and the socially conscious fable. Wall-E was made for everyone, but it was especially made for Anika and Becky.

So when I say that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was made for me, I’m not denying its universal appeal. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. Many, many people love it, and deservedly so. But my own unique combination of interests and hobbies and fascinations were so well-represented in the novel that I can’t, at this moment, imagine a piece of fiction more closely attuned to me, specifically.

When I was in elementary school, I discovered stage magic. I don’t know what came first — watching magic specials on television, or seeing a box of tricks in a store. Most likely I first learned about magic from a clown or puppet show at a birthday party or community event. But whatever the impetus, I became absolutely fascinated with stage magic, and decided I would be a magician when I grew up. I bought myself a plastic top hat and wand and a dozen pre-packaged tricks to learn, wore my hand-me-down, poufy-sleeved, black “David Copperfield” blouse, and performed magic for anyone who would stand still long enough. When I attended a week-long Girl Scout summer camp with a talent show theme, I eschewed the singing and dancing and piano-playing of my peers and instead performed my tricks for the audience of parents who gathered for our end-of-camp talent spectacular. By the end of elementary school I’d mostly left magic behind, having realized I lacked most of the things necessary for a stage magician (like grace and speed and charisma and a good poker face), but bits of my fascination remain.

In fourth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank for a talented and gifted extra-curricular class. It was the first time I’d ever heard about the Holocaust, and I found myself both horrified and fascinated. I became passionate about learning all I could, in the hopes that I could pass on my knowledge to others and promote a more accepting world that wouldn’t forget the weight of our sad history. I read every bit of Holocaust memoir and fiction I could get my hands on, including The Devil in Vienna, an epistolary novel about two best friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi) torn apart by the war, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. My interest in that period of history — indeed, in the entire World War II era, worldwide — never faded, and later experiences (a visit to a concentration camp during a summer trip to Europe, a college course on texts and images of the Holocaust) only deepened my knowledge and fascination.

Fourth grade was also significant as the year I fell in love with New York City. I grew up in central New Jersey, in a commuter town with a view of New York across the bay on clear days, but, since my parents were diehard suburbanites who hated the city, it may as well have been across the country. It took plenty of begging and pleading for me to convince my parents to let me visit the city, and finally, after I sacrificed a tenth birthday party in exchange, my parents drove me into New York to see my first Broadway show, Cats. It was all downhill from there. Over the years I became more and more interested in Broadway, and thus had more and more reason to enter the city; meanwhile, I fell in love with fiction that took place in New York, from the movie Newsies to Broadway’s RENT. Even as repeated visits made New York more and more real to me (to the point where, now, I often do nothing more in the city than sit in diners and Starbucks with friends all day), it remained a magical, magnetic attraction, the site of all my fantasies and the setting of all my most beloved stories.

In seventh grade, I read Hatchet, the classic middle grades novel about one boy’s survival in the wilderness following a plane crash. This is the moment I most clearly remember developing a strong interest in survival stories, the stories of unprepared individuals trying to survive in harsh conditions without modern comforts. But perhaps that interest had always been there, from the Dear America and American Girl books about surviving on the prairie, middle school games of Oregon Trail, and that Baby-Sitters Club Super Special where they got stranded on a desert island off the coast of Connecticut. Either way, I knew at that moment that I would always love survival stories, and I actively sought them out in other fiction.

Toward the end of eighth grade, my friend Nick came out of the closet. Over the next few years, almost all of my male friends (of which I had quite a few) followed suit, as did a number of my female friends. As a result, I found myself very involved in the gay rights movement — or as involved as a teenager can be. I helped my friends organize observances of the Day of Silence, launched a gay-straight alliance (which, sadly, was mostly a failure), and wrote articles for the school newspaper about the importance of gay rights legislation. My activism carried through college, where I was a member of the Pride Alliance, and continues to this day; if someone were to call me a single-issue voter, gay rights would be that issue. And in the course of all this activism, I realized how important it is for fictional worlds to be populated with gay characters, characters my friends might identify with. I began to read tons of gay fiction, actively yearning and campaigning for more gay characters in more mainstream media, while also reading up on the history of the gay rights movement, becoming particularly intrigued by pre-Stonewall gay lives. (In college, I took a much-beloved class on the American 1950s, and my final paper addressed the topic of gay lives in 1950s America, particularly in the suburbs.)

Finally, in the middle of college, I discovered comic books. And what started as a passing interest soon turned into a life-changing, all-consuming obsession. I fell in love with Captain America, and wound up writing my undergrad senior thesis about his cultural impact. I made dozens of new friends, some of whom are among my best friends, and began blogging, becoming a part of the comic book community. And eventually, I realized that studying comics — alongside other media — was something I wanted to make a career out of. I applied to grad school in media and cultural studies, and I’ll be heading there in a little over a month to start a PhD program. Though I don’t have any real desire to make comics myself, I’m fascinated by both the craft and the cultural impact of the books, and I love learning about the history of the medium and talking to creators about their work. Though I’ve only been reading comics for four years now, I’m quite content with my plan to devote much of my life to studying them.

So when I read a book in which the New York setting is almost a character unto itself, featuring as protagonists a magician character threatened by the Holocaust and a gay character threatened by homophobia, who together create comic books during World War II about a superhero similar to Captain America, and who later must survive an Antarctic wilderness and 1950s comformist suburbia, respectively, is it any wonder I would come away from the story thinking “this book, this was written just for me”? With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has written my Wall-E, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Learning to Appreciate Dancing with the Stars

May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am (Analysis, Review) (, )

For the past five years, I’ve mocked my parents relentlessly for their love of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve rolled my eyes fondly when my mom has called me at 9:00 on a Monday night with an exhortation to dial a certain toll-free number and give more votes to her favorite contestant. I’ve laughed derisively at the antics of the judges and hosts as I’ve passed through my living room on the way to my own preferred entertainment options. You could say, quite fairly, that I didn’t see the appeal of a cheesy dancing competition filled with D-list celebrities — for myself, or for the millions of viewers who apparently watched it every season.

Then, this winter, a few things happened in quick succession: I watched the Winter Olympics, I got sucked into the world of figure skating fandom, and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek was announced as a contestant on season 10 of Dancing with the Stars. And suddenly I had a dilemma — would I watch this thing I’d always mocked, just for a celebrity I enjoyed?

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. Oh, sure, I tried to justify it at first, to mitigate the shame. “Oh, me? I’m just watching this to mock it. “For the lulz,” as they say on the internets. I’m watching it ironically. I just want to see how goofy Evan is, with his long, awkward limbs. And Buzz Aldrin! How can you not watch an octogenarian former moon-walker attempt to dance? Besides, it’s nice to have a reason to sit down with my parents twice a week. I’m doing it for the sake of family bonding!” I started voting for Evan — first with my phone, then with increasingly numerous e-mail addresses — and claimed I was only doing so because I worried his ultra-competitive personality would lead him to have a nervous breakdown if he got kicked off too early. As a final defense, I swore I’d only watch until Evan left — which, since he just earned second place on the finale last night, turned out to be a moot declaration. But about halfway through the season, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t stop watching even if Evan was kicked off — because I’d begun to truly enjoy the show.

It’s pretty common for geeky people to react like I initially did to something like Dancing with the Stars. In a world where our geeky hobbies (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) are regularly derided as the childish trash entertainment of socially-stunted individuals, we frequently become defensive to the point of elitism, declaring our hobbies to be worthwhile and the entertainment of the masses to be worthless drivel. When you combine this geeky tendency with the tendency of high-minded academics (with whom I was surrounded for four years) to dismiss low and popular culture entirely, you can see how, despite all my best efforts, I found myself falling into the trap of dismissing entertainment with mainstream appeal without ever giving it a second thought. American Idol? Bleh. Two and a Half Men? Oy. And Dancing with the Stars? Oh, whatever.

I’m not going to claim that ten weeks spent with Dancing with the Stars completely cured me of this tendency toward elitism. I’m also not going to pretend it’s suddenly become my favorite show. But it did make me appreciate the value of entertainment that isn’t necessarily thoughtful or competitively rigorous. Is the game fixed from the start? Of course it is. Is it unfair to put people with absolutely no dance or athletic experience, like actress Niecy Nash, up against people who are, essentially, professional dancers, like Pussycat Doll and winner Nicole Scherzinger? Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy the goofy, low-budget, good-natured fun of it. Since they’re all celebrities who are getting paid to be there and act as caricatures of themselves, it’s hard to really feel bad for any of the contestants, and the show does an amazing job of framing them to be likeable. I came into the show for Evan, but through the dances and pre-taped “packages” I found myself loving Niecy and Buzz and Pamela Anderson and football player Chad Ochocinco and sportscaster Erin Andrews and even Bachelor Jake Pavelka. (Reality star Kate Gosselin still managed to come off as consistently unlikable, but DWTS’s editors can’t exactly perform miracles.)

The show has its flaws, of course. The singers who perform covers of hit songs for the celebrities to dance to are frequently terrible, and not in a fun way like the bad celebrity dancers — I found myself covering my ears on the high notes of their shrieking cover of Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment.” The results shows are padded far past endurable levels with commercial breaks and fluff, and in the two-week college dance team competition held toward the end of the season, the show made the unforgivable decision to pit the ballroom dance majors of Utah Valley University against the Rutgers University dance team that had formed on a whim four months ago. Mismatched celebrities competing against each other is one thing, but it’s quite another to embarrass normal, earnest college kids like the Rutgers students, and I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

But when some of the most-lauded dramatic television is full of unlikeable characters doing awful things (The Sopranos, Mad Men, half the characters on Glee), sometimes it’s nice to just watch a bunch of people who don’t take themselves too seriously acting silly and learning to dance — or, in the case of the judges and hosts, reacting to those dances. And while the dancing from the celebrities is rarely good, the show does make a conscious effort to showcase the art of dance, with the professional dances performed during the weekly results shows. (They also make an effort to showcase professional singers during those shows — Melissa Etheridge’s appearance was a highlight of the season.) Dance competitions, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article pointed out, are as old as the medium of television itself, and they tap into a cultural well that runs deep. There’s something about watching pretty people in glitzy, glittery costumes moving across a dance floor to music that charms even my jaded, geeky soul. And that’s not even taking into account the social aspect of the show — discussing the dances and contestants with friends and family, yelling at the judges and/or voters for making “bad” calls, and voting your heart out for the contestant you hope will take home the tacky, over-the-top Mirrorball Trophy.

I’m not sure if I’ll watch DWTS next season. It’ll depend, I’m sure, on the cast, and if there’s someone I can root for as enthusiastically as I rooted for Evan this season. But I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate the show’s popularity, and I hope to carry that lesson with me the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment it seems so easy to dismiss.

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Finding Myself in 90s Kids’ TV

February 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reflection) (, )

(Crossposted to Murmur.)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences with teen television, and how I’ve never been quite able to identify with TV adolescents, due to a general lack of diversity that doesn’t reflect my own high school memories. I still stand by that statement, but at the same time I know there have been teenage characters I’ve related to on television — particularly teens on shows made for younger children who I found myself trying to emulate when I was in elementary or middle school. So when frequent Murmur.com contributor Dave Carr asked me to share some of my experiences with early 90s children’s television, I was happy to take him up on the offer and talk about two of those aspirational characters — Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains it All and Doug Funnie of Doug.

Clarissa Explains it All, which premiered in 1991, wasn’t about much of anything, really. Unlike the high-concept shows that seem to populate tween TV today (Hannah Montana is secretly a regular high school student! Zack and Cody live in a hotel!), the shows of my childhood were largely about regular kids who were only remarkable in that they had a TV show about them. There was a comfort to that, a feeling that you could BE those characters, without too much effort. Clarissa Darling, in particular, was the kind of person I wanted to be. On the surface, we had a lot in common: two parents who loved each other and their children, even if they didn’t always understand them; an exceptionally annoying younger brother; a friend who was a boy, but with whom she didn’t have any sort of romantic attachment. She wanted to be a journalist (and would have become one, had a planned spinoff/final season actually happened), and she was always a little weirder than average. I related more than a little.

However, she was also ridiculously cool. She wore the sort of insane outfits that didn’t even make total sense in the early 90s when the show was created, including those floppy denim hats with the big flowers on the front (yes, I had one). She had a pet baby alligator and hubcaps on her wall and she was unapologetic in her weirdness. Every episode she talked directly to the audience (the main gimmick of the show) and enumerated her problems, always coming up with the most creative solutions to solve them. (Half the time, the problem was her Alex P. Keaton-esque younger brother, Ferguson, and I refuse to confirm or deny whether or not I ever used one of her “solutions” to defend myself against my own annoying sibling.) And she frequently designed computer simulations to illustrate her problems, something I yearned to do myself. (It would be a few years before I even got a computer of my own, and that was an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 64 with DOS.)

But perhaps the best part about Clarissa is that the show never left the confines of the Darling house. We knew, from Clarissa’s narration and interaction with the other characters, that a world existed beyond her front door. She went to school, she went on vacations, she went shopping. But we never saw her do any of those things. We only saw her house, her family, and her best friend, Sam, who entered her house by climbing a ladder and crawling through her window (complete with window seat — how I coveted that!). If the show had a guest star, it was because someone (another friend of Clarissa’s, a relative, etc.) was visiting. And perhaps because we never saw the outside world, it was easy for me to imagine that her world was my world, that her school was my school and her other friends were my other friends. Clarissa represented an ideal that young girls could actually aspire to, filling in the blanks with their own lives and histories, and the show, which began the year I started Kindergarten, still means a lot to me to this day. Sometimes I even wonder where the characters would have ended up as adults. How quickly would Ferguson’s political career with the Republican Party have gone up in flames when his lefty journalist sister blew open a political scandal? I’d love to see the 15-years-later for those characters.

Doug, a cartoon about an everykid and his adventures in a new town, Bluffington, premiered the same year as Clarissa, and was one of the first three NickToons on Nickelodeon. (The other two being Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy.) Before the show moved to ABC (and fell drastically in quality), Doug was a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing, and I couldn’t help forming a resonant attachment with its shy, awkward hero. Sure, Doug was a boy, but otherwise he was a lot like me — stuck in his ways (he wore the same clothes every day), slightly gullible, nervous in social situations, and a thoughtful dreamer who recorded everything that happened in his diary. He had an anthropomorphic dog named Porkchop, a wacky best friend named Skeeter, a frenemy named Roger, and an idolized love interest named Patti Mayonnaise, in addition to his parents and drama nerd older sister, Judy. Unlike Clarissa, which succeeded largely because of its focused domestic setting, the best part of Doug was its placement in a very real-seeming school. I identified with Doug’s anxieties about homework assignments and evil vice principals and looking foolish in front of his crush, and with the idea of having friends who would just as soon torture you as support you. (3rd through 5th grade were tough.) And sometimes I even envisioned myself as a superhero, as Doug did — he secretly drew comics in his bedroom about the adventures of Quailman, a version of Doug with a cape, a belt around his head, and underwear over his pants. (Perhaps my eventual descent into comic book obsession was inevitable.)

Also interesting, though perhaps more thorny, was the fact that other than Doug himself, who was Caucasian, all of the characters on Doug had skin and hair of colors not found in nature and heavily exaggerated/cartoony/impossible hair and features. This meant, essentially, that race was hard to pinpoint in the Doug universe, and while this sort of post-racial world/elimination of race concerns can be problematic in itself, it was easier for me to see my non-white friends in Doug’s universe than it was in similar shows of my childhood with explicitly all-white casts. For a show about a white, male, middle class protagonist, Doug was at least a tiny bit more progressive than most.

I could go on about other shows I related to, the shows that helped to define my childhood. I could go on for pages about Boy Meets World, possibly my all-time favorite show, and the ways in which I’m essentially the lovechild of Cory and Topanga. But I think I’ve revealed enough about myself for one day, and I want to encourage others to talk about the shows that defined their childhood — particularly the shows in which they saw reflections of themselves. What do you remember?

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