…and by ‘lovely’ I mean the sound of the snow buntings that you can almost hear over the wind near the end of this video. The rest of it just makes me feel all somehow.
Respect means different things to different people.
More to the point, respect means something very different for those of us in civilian circles than it does for those on active duty in the military. I couldn’t begin to do the latter subject justice, but I will hazard the observation that respect seems to an elaborate theme in military life. It is reflected in a number of practices and ritualized in a number of ways. It forms a prominent them in stories told by soldiers from just about every generation. Those of us who’ve never been there have the luxury of putting respect in the back our minds, We notice outright disrespect when we see it, and we may even notice markedly respectful behavior when we see it, but most of the time, we can let the issue ride, so to speak. The very notion of respect must mean something very different to someone who has to live in a world where rank matters and salutation is obligatory. For them, respect is an affirmative obligation. For the rest of us it is assumed.
I keep this in mind when I hear veteran’s complain about failure to stand for the flag. I also keep it in mind when I hear demagogues working damned hard to put veterans between protesters and the rest of us. It’s a dilemma. I want to respect someone’s service, but I am also keenly aware that the terms of that respect can be a real threat to my freedom and those of my fellow citizens.
There is a reason that militarism is a prominent theme in fascist circles, and it isn’t because those in such circles have any special respect for the military. No. The elaborate ritualism of respect which is such a part of military life is precisely what fascists want from the rest of us. It’s a kind of ethic, they would very much like to see generalized to the rest of the population. This kind of agenda is easily framed in terms of respect forthe military,
The likes of Donald Trump want us to salute just as a soldier would; they want us all to affirm our loyalty to the state, in terms we do not choose, at times and places wherein failure to do so will cost us something, the respect of our peers if not our actual freedom. Herein lies the perverse trick behind the argument that we must all stand for the pledge or the Anthem, that failure to do so amounts to a direct and willful attack on our military and the veterans who have served in it. That messages seeks to impose a dose of military discipline on the rest of us. Those pushing this message are effectively packaging a very real act of aggression against the citizenry as a simple courtesy.
It’s significant that this message comes nw in direct response to protests over the health and welfare of a significant portion of the American public. The protests carried out by so many players taking a knee in the NFL have a significance of their own, and that significance is NOT a willful attack on the military. They are protesting police abuse and violence directed at African-Americans. The protests are aimed at trying to get something done to curb such abuse and give African-Americans (among others) a
fighting chance cooperating chance of surviving a traffic stop or just a walk down the street. Putting respect for the military front and center in the response to these protests effectively replaces any dialogue the protesters might hope to generate about civil rights with a debate about respect for the military. It answers a legitimate concern about the rights of American citizens with a demand for express loyalty from those very citizens. It should be said those responding to the protests have been remarkably successful in this regard. We talk less now about police abuse and much more about soldiers and flags.
We can argue about whether or not pressure from the Trump administration to stop protests at football games actually violates the U.S. Constitution, but the central symbolism remains the same. What the Trump administration has effectively done is to say; “fuck your civil rights, give us our due!” In requiring its players to stand for the Anthem, in direct response to such pressures, the NFL has effectively bent its knee, and the end result will be a national gesture of obedience unparalleled in recent years. Whatever else the National Anthem meant before, this coming football season it will also mean obedience.
The message is rendered just a little more toxic when one considers that the Star Spangled Banner contains a passage mocking the hopes of escaping slaves. Folks don’t sing that line anymore, but it certainly does raise questions about what the song really means to various American citizens. Those demanding we all stand and put our hands over our hearts typically envision a pure statement of love for our nation, a nation that serves us all equally, and one whose claims on our loyalty is pretty much the same for all.
And still, the line is there…
A reasonable person might see that line as a problem. A reasonable person might understand how a black football player might not want to pay his respects through a gesture that denigrates his own ancestors. Of course a reasonable person would understand the concerns over police abuse in the first place, and a reasonable person might think that quietly kneeling during the course of the Anthem was a reasonable response to the whole situation.
Downright moderate when you think about it!
Hell, a reasonable person might want to review a few police procedures, not the least of them being the role of civil asset forfeiture in police budgets, and as a source of escalating conflict between police and certain policed populations. A reasonable person might want to review bias (latent or overt) in police actions and see if there is anything more than can be done to ensure that officers treat citizens properly. A reasonable person might want to ask questions about the significance of increasing militarization in police training and equipment purchases (something right wingers were once concerned about, …back when cows were the main issue of the day). A reasonable person might respond to the whole taking-a-knee debacle by trying to do something about the situation that gave rise to the controversy in the first place.
Reasonable people might be interested in such things.
But these are not reasonable times.
And so, here we sit, watching the Manchurian Cheeto move the whole nation a little further down the road to outright fascism, all with the full flag-waving support of good ‘patriotic’ Americans, millions of whom will sit right on their asses drinking beer next season as players are forced to bend the knee by standing for the anthem. These folks will happily remind us that the players are rich, and so they shouldn’t complain, so we are told. They will mock Black Lives Matter, remind us of the worst excesses done in its name, and they will enjoy the hope that the whole thing makes liberals a little less happy. What they won’t do is anything about the abuse of their fellow citizens at the hands of at least some Police
Consumer patriotism isn’t worth the price of the bean dip served with it.
We are often told that we should be mindful that soldiers have fought and died for the freedoms the rest of us enjoy. That’s a far more problematic claim than most seem to think. Our soldiers are as often used to protect financial interests (which may or may not include the welfare of the average citizen) as they are the rights or even the safety of the American population. That’s not there fault (they don’t get to choose when and where they fight), but the American military is far more abused by politicians using it for purposes other than the noble causes making their way into such rhetoric as it is by any protester in any cause out there. That’s something to consider when this thoughtless crap is tossed in the faces of those exercising the very freedoms in question. More to the point, if we are to remember people who fought and died in the name of American freedoms, that memory would surely include an awful lot of activists, protesters just like those people seek to silence with this feigned respect for the military. And its a perverse irony that respect for the one could so easily be used as a means of silencing the other.
…which brings me back to my first point salutation is an obligation for those in the military. For the rest of us, it simply isn’t. Whatever respect we owe those that have served, that respect itself is poorly served when we collectively take on the rituals and the obligations of the military, when we surrender the freedoms that the military has supposedly fault for. Those rights include the right to refrain from public gestures of fealty; they also include the right to walk down the street without fear of assault by law enforcement.
It’s a painful thing to think that some sincere people may be hurt by protests such as those taking a knee. It is at least as painful to think that some very insincere people will get the obedience they demand by manipulating a civilian public’s regard for military service.
At the end of the day, all of this leaves the primary issue untouched. We still have a law enforcement problem in this country. Some folks want to change that.
And some would rather us drink a beer and watch the gladiators salute the emperor before bashing their brains out for our viewing pleasure.
So, a couple of friends and I are putting together a film festival, scheduled for August 3-5 in Fairbanks. We are interested in all manner of independent submissions, but we are particularly interested in just about anything with a social consciousness, so to speak. If you happen to make films, please consider submitting to the festival. And if you happen to like independent films, then please consider watching a few with us in August.
…and if you don’t know, and haven’t been, yes, Fairbanks is gorgeous in August.
We have the following to say for ourselves…
Films from everywhere and of all genres are welcome. MôTif strives to turn our festival into a platform and outlet for voices fighting to be heard. We also encourage submissions from indigenous filmmakers, filmmakers of color, filmmakers with different abilities, LGBTQQIA filmmakers, female-identified filmmakers, and filmmakers from any other underrepresented group. Please help us spread the word and share this with filmmakers from around the world. You can submit your film through FilmFreeway.
MôTif is a multimedia production company that supports and creates art projects, focusing on the underrepresented and the environment.
We have no limits on how to use art to show untold stories and make ideas come true. Our core goal is to explore solutions and help in the fight to decimate racism, bigotry, poverty, sexism, and climate change through art.
We collaborate with masterly artists to offer innovative services for communities, individuals, and organizations including workshops, event development, performing arts, film, photography and design.
With our mission in mind we want to offer the first ever MôTif Film Festival. We are committed to discover new and diverse voices, with 97% of the films coming directly from the submissions we receive. We strive to turn our festival into a platform of voices that still fight to be heard, that need support, and is an outlet for their stories.
The winners of each category will receive an exclusive handmade trophy created by a local Alaskan artist and business owner of The Monolith Project as well as a certificate.
Total Prize Value (USD): Priceless
All submitted films must comply with the Submissions Guidelines including deadlines, exhibition format, entry material, etc.
We do not pay screener fees.
Entrants are responsible for obtaining any necessary licenses, royalties, release forms, clearances, permits necessary to present their work. MôTif Film Festival is not responsible for any claim involving copyright, trademark, credits, or royalty infringement related to the work.
Interested parties can find out more here:
Whenever I’m tempted to simply accept the seemingly innocuous gestures of civil religion here in America, someone or something comes along and reminds me that it simply isn’t safe to do so, that the boundary between church and state is worth defending, and that the potential for compromise on this issue is a well-poisoned well.
Case in point?
This bit of Cheeto-driven drivel, right here!
This pathetic tweet is an artifact of the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s an occasion when the President bows to the authority of political Christians, and vouchasafes their victories in the early days of the cold war. Whatever else this event is, it’s a good reminder that the cold war was always about internal politics as much as confrontation with external enemies. It’s also proof that little has changed under the sun (except perhaps the ratio of black carbon in the atmosphere, which is of course a heresy to the breakfasting prayer-mongers Trump spoke with today). Seriously, this event is the legacy of people who wanted Jesus to roll back the institutions of the New Deal, people who wanted to take away the social safety net and leave us all with nothing but Jesus and our own boot straps to help us in times of need. “In God we trust?” The subtext of that message is that government isn’t going to help you all.
That was always the point.
…which is why this message may be particularly relevant coming from an administration Hell-bent on tearing up every government agency that Americans rely on to keep us safe and prosperous. When the Manchurian Cheeto is done, we may well have nothing more than Jesus to keep poisons out of our water supply, remove the Russians from our computers, and hold the crooks at bay in the multinational cartels we now call banks. Jesus is already what the Republicans had offer the people of Flint and Puerto Rico. It’s what they offered to Southern Californians as a good chunk of the state burned down. It’s all we’ll be left with when the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast see Donald Trump deliver up the national disaster they’ve been praying for all these decades.
For all their flag-waving and Bible-thumping, those behind the National Prayer Breakfast are neither patriots nor Christians, and they certainly aren’t conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. What they want for this country is a disaster, and Donald Trump is delivering that disaster. He is the answer to their prayers.
The hypocrisy orgy known as the National Prayer Breakfast gives us a lot to gripe about. Donald Trump was fully immersed in the spirit of the occasion. He shared a good number of thoughts about the importance of faith in America, and in the American people. All utter crap of course, but he shared it all just the same.
For purposes of brevity, let’s just stick with the tweet, that portion of the wretched breakfast he chose to put into the only literary form the man and his fan base truly appreciate. He makes three points in this tweet, each of which is supposed to tell us something about the importance of God to the United States of America. Each of these points is damned misleading, which I suppose is a step up from the outright falsehoods we normally fall from this fountain of false facts, fake news, and utter foolishness. Still, a moment on each point will go a long way towards illustrating why Donald Trump is wrong about the role of God in America, and why the political Christians who eat this message up are wrong as well.
The first thing to notice is what is not mentioned in this vapid tweet, and that is the U.S. Constitution. It is the U.S. Constitution, and religion clauses of the First Amendment, that make the role of religion in our government such a hotly debated topic. One of the most fascinating things about those who want us to think of America as a Christian nation is just how hard they work to leave the Constitution out of the discussion. That document doesn’t help them, so they have to work around it. They have just one problem. Simply failing to mention the U.S. Constitution is too obvious. It sets up a great big red flag and invites those of us on the secular end too many obvious entry points to push our own point of view. They can’t just not say anything. That won’t work. So, they typically do what Trump does here. They cite the Declaration instead.
Like Jesus sent to atone for the sins the humanity, The Declaration of Independence serves to atone for the silence of the Constitution on the subject of God. (Yes, the Constitution mentions God in the date. If that impresses, you then I have an acre of arctic ice-pack to sell you.) The Constitution simply doesn’t say what Evangelical Christians want it to say. It does not invoke God as the authority for creation of the U.S. Government. (It locates that authority in the people.) It doesn’t say that you have to be Christian to hold office. (In fact, it expressly forbids such a standard.) And of course it contains a clause holding religion at bay right there alongside the right to practice religion. We can debate the proper interpretation of the establishment clause, but its mere existence is an annoyance to those who would clearly rather live in a theocracy. You can read the Constitution all day, but it won’t give you the license to tie Jesus to our politics that Evangelical Christians want out of the document. So, they typically talk about the Declaration of Independence instead.
Just like the Cheeto-in-Chief did today.
Of course those pushing the America-as-a-Christian-nation theme typically misread the Declaration itself, often confusing this reference to a Creator (written by a man widely regarded as a Deist) with a direct reference to Jesus himself and nearly always confusing this piece of propaganda with a clear plan of government. They ignore the clear parallels to logic of Hobbesian thought and other connections to Enlightenment philosophy in order to cast the language of the Declaration in terms closer to those of scripture. Most importantly, they reverse the point of the argument. Jefferson wasn’t using rights to prove the existence of a creator. He was using a reference to the Creator to explain the existence of rights, and no, there is nothing in the relevant passage of the Declaration that suggests the rights will cease to exist if we take the Creator out of the picture. All of this is lost on those consuming messages like that Trump delivered today at the National Prayer Breakfast. When they reference the Declaration, they see it as an argument for belief in God (which they assume means Jesus), but they are dead wrong in more ways than they could possibly count.
Simply put, the Declaration doesn’t mean what Donald Trump pretends it means. Neither does it mean what the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast want it to mean.
I doubt there is much in the Bible that means what they want it to mean either.
Or the Constitution that matter.
The whole shell game is crap! People ought to stop talking about the Declaration when they mean to address questions about the Constitution, and they ought to stop reading either one as though it was the script for the youth pastor in a particularly uneducated part of the country. Most of us are smarter than that, but that doesn’t stop some people from recycling the same old garbage, which is what Trump did today. The whole con has been painfully obvious for decades. That should be as obvious to Christians as it is to the rest of us.
But not to the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast!
As to ‘In God We Trust’? That motto was adopted by the nation in 1956. It was part of the same movement that led to things like the National Prayer Breakfast, which makes it an interesting point for Trump to make. In doing so, he is simultaneously invoking a principle many assume to be a timeless part of American history and also giving a nod to the faithful who know the history of the prayer breakfast, people who understand the aggressiveness of their own political agenda, people who understand how divisive that phrase was always meant to be. It may sound like a nice an unifying message, if that is, you don’t give a damn about those who don’t trust god after all. In effect, the motto says of the rest of us that we aren’t really part of America. We don’t really count.
That is of course precisely the point. Always was.
“One nation, under God?”
Same story. This too was also added in those days shortly after Ike had been reluctantly cajoled into making public professions of faith in the official service of the nation. It too has always served as a clear reminder to the rest of us that we do not really belong. One nation under God? If you don’t believe in God, that little utterance, that bit of prayer stuck into the middle of an oath, gives the lie to the whole charade, it drops you right out of the narrative in the very moment the thoughtless celebrate unity at your expense.
Again, that is the point of the ritual.
So, there we have it, one twisted effort to dodge the Constitution on the subject of church and state, and two tokens of divisiveness wrapped in a cloak of unity. Whether he means it or not, whether Donald Trump is capable of ‘meaning’ anything in the conventional sense of the word, this is the message he offered America’s political Christians today. He endorsed their most aggressive agenda and made a point to isolate their enemies. Small wonder that these folks love him despite his obvious insincerity. Today Donald Trump offered the religious right the power to which they feel entitled, and he did it in precisely the same deceitful tones they have always known and loved. That’s our President; completely without substance, and utterly disingenuous.
The religious right wouldn’t have him any other way!
Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…
I think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.
One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.
If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.
Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.
I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.
Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.
Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?
Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?
In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.
How to go about it?
I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.
One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…
Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.
Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)
What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.
What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.
Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.
This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.
Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.
On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.
I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Five: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.
I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.
Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.
For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.
Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.
The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.
No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.
SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.
…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!
When I first got into Navajo country (many years ago) my old boss used to laugh and say that Ricola was traditional Navajo medicine. I remember him singing the name lightly as he got out a piece. No, he wasn’t suggesting that Navajos had invented Ricola. As I recall, his throat used to get scratchy during all-night chants. His remedy of choice, Ricola, helped him get through the long evenings with his voice intact. His phrasing was intentionally ironic, of course, but my old boss had in fact made this commercial medicine part of his own traditional regimin.
You can find that sort of irony in all sorts of traditional indigenous activities. It can produce the sort of wry humor of my old boss and his cough medicine, or it can give rise to deep suspicions. A lot depends on who is calling attention to the irony. The issue often comes up in my classes here on the north slope of Alaska where the dominant traditional themes are associated with hunting and whaling. The indigenous peoples of Alaska retain substantial rights to subsistence activities which include the taking game. That they frequently use modern technology in doing so hasn’t escaped notice, but what of it? That’s an interesting question.
The issue popped up a number of years back when the New York Times published a piece on the Fall whale hunt here in Barrow. Its title put the between technology and tradition front and center:
If the purpose of this rather clever juxtaposition wasn’t clear enough at the outset, one didn’t have to read far into the piece to see the point driven home rather clearly. In the very first sentence, its authors (William Yardley and Erik Olden) declare that “The ancient whale hunt is not so ancient anymore.” They go on to quote whalers themselves saying things such as “Ah the traditional loader” and “ah the, the traditional forklift.” And with that introduction, the authors go on to explore the paradox of traditional activities carried out with modern technology.
Suffice to say, many in Barrow were not amused.
Edward Itta, former Mayor of the North Slope, published his own response in the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN), suggesting that the authors had failed to grasp the cultural context in which indigenous whaling takes place. A subsequent ADN article focusing on Wainwright took the time to castigate Yardly and Olden for focusing on the nature of Fall whaling instead of Spring when whalers use walrus skinned boats. Yardley and Olsen too had commented this fact, but the point was easily lost in the overall narrative highlighting the use of technology in whaling practice.
I keep coming back to this piece, because the questions raised in that article keep coming back to me. Often it’s a student new to the region who fields the question in one form or another, is it still traditional if people can use modern technology? I struggle to get across the best answer I can. I can point folks to Iñupiat who can answer the question much more authoritatively than I can, but frankly, I think there is a reason I get these questions. As another outsider, I suppose, I may be thought a safe person to ask. I reckon they figure I won’t get mad.
…and I won’t.
This does strike me as an honest question, at least in the sense that those asking it usually seem to be sincere. Just the same, measuring legitimacy of native traditions by the use or absence of modern technology does skew the issue in some very toxic ways.
On one level, I find myself wondering if the Amish haven’t become the paradigm case for traditional anything in the minds of so many people. I reckon it’s up to Iñupiat to define their own traditions as they see fit, and to the best of my knowledge, there just isn’t anything in there against using the most productive technology available. The tradition is taking a whale, not doing it with a particularly pristine kind of harpoon, much less butchering it using only native equipment. The notion that using technology constitutes a failure of authenticity is an assumption coming from outsider.
It isn’t a particularly helpful assumption at that.
Which brings me back to the jokes at the beginning of that old New York Times piece. I can’t help wondering if the authors might have gotten the point of the humor wrong. Hell, it might have been their editor who skewed the whole piece, I don’t know, but in its final form that article clearly takes each of those jokes to be an admission of sorts, a subtle concession to the inauthenticity of the activities in question.
I read those with echoes of my own boss singing ‘Ricola’ in the back of my head.
It seems at least as likely that the point of the humor had something to do with the adaptability of tradition. The question may not have been, is this really traditional, but rather how could it be otherwise?
What makes whaling traditional? Yardley and Olsen touched on this when they noted the distribution of boiled muktuk (edible blubber and skin) to those present as the whale was butchered.
Much of the community comes to watch as a whale is burchered. More to the point, much of the community pitches in to help. Even more have helped in one manner or another to provide support for the whaling crews during the course of preparations. Where possible, employers grant leave to those engaged in whaling, and teachers accept absences during whaling season. We’ll work it out later. You would be hard pressed to find a resident of the North Slope who doesn’t provide some sort of support to whaling activities, even if it’s just acceptance of the way the whaling season restructures all of our other activities. Whaling is a community affair, and its impact on the community re-enforces numerous personal relationships.
The tradition is also found in freezers throughout the North Slope, many of which contain muktuk and other delicacies received as gifts from the whalers. It can be seen when a successful crew serves a meal to any who come by their home, and you can see it again during Nalukataq (a Spring festival) when pretty much anyone can walk into a the festival square, sit down, and receive all manner of food from these very same crews. What makes whaling matter is the way that it shapes relations between people all over the north slope, and in that respect it continues many of the same patterns that predate the presence of outsiders like me who ask too many questions, and sometimes fail to learn the answers. If we’re looking for the traditional components of whaling, this is where you will find them.
This social emphasis too is complicated as Hell, but it’s actually relevant. We can ask, for example, how the use of technology ties subsistence activities to modern markets, how use of a snow-machine instead of a dog team changes the work regime for participants in whaling and hunting. We can ask how the presence of grocery stores changes everything, and how the jobs needed to earn money for modern goods and services change the lives of people all over the North Slope. The answers to such questions might also leave us with a less of pristine sense of what tradition means in subsistence activities, but they point to a different sense of the problems at stake in these issues and a different sense of the threats to community practice.
Simply pointing at a forklift is a bit of a gotcha game. Unfortunately, it’s a game played all too often by outsiders looking at indigenous hunting practices. More and more, I find myself thinking the game begins when people look in the wrong place to understand these practices. They come and they watch the whalers at work on the ice or harvesting a catch on the beach.
Where they ought to be looking is in those freezers.
…okay folks, don’t come up here and literally look in people’s freezers.
My point is that people who want to understand the significance of whaling or any other aspect of traditional subsistence need to look at the way the work and the results are shared. They need to look at the festivals, the potlucks, the serving events around town, or simply at the moments when someone walks up and hands someone else a helping of food. That’s where the tradition is held together, and that is precisely why the damned forklift was traditional after all.
Just like the Ricola my old boss used to love.
If you are traveling around the four-corners, you might think your best bet for a map would be one covering one or more of those states.
That seems right, doesn’t it?
Don’t give me any flack about phones and GPS systems. I’m old damn it! I use maps.
Well, it turns out my friend Ken Ascher also uses maps, and he just gave me a quick lesson in how to choose the right map. …at least for the four corners area. You see, he was looking to find Tsaile, which happens to the location of the main campus of Diné College where I used to work.
Ken got a AAA map for Arizona and New Mexico and looked and looked. This (just below) is what he saw. You can look and look yourself, but you won’t find it. Tsaile just isn’t on that map. Oh, the little part of the map that I included in that picture does indeed cover the territory that includes the little community of Tsaile, but no, you cannot find Tsaile on that particular map.
You can stop looking now, it’s not there.
Luckily, it turns out that AAA has a different map for “Indian Country” in all four of the four corners states. It isn’t as detailed, but its purpose is to highlight the features of Indian territory. And thus Tsaile makes an appearance on this map (near the upper right hand corner). Yes, it does. See, it’s right there.
Having seen it here in the “Indian Country” map, you can even pop your eyes back up to the map above and see where Tsaile should have been. No, it’s still not there. You can see where it should be, but it’s not there.
The issue doesn’t seem to be resolution. The Arizona and New Mexico map has a higher resolution than the one for Indian country. I somehow doubt that anyone hatched a plot to hide Tsaile from Ken. My guess, is that the criteria for selecting what to put on each map simply differs, and that the difference was enough to make Tsaile disappear (along with quite a few other things, actually). Luckily Ken found the other map and then found his way to Tsaile.
Okay, so this probably isn’t one of the greater injustices to occur in the all-too sordid history of Indian-white relations, but surely there must be a moral somewhere in this story. It might be just to remember that you can get a separate map for Indian country if your traveling through the area. It could also be that you should get as many maps as you can possibly find, so that you can check them all. Hell, it might even be that you should use your telephone GPS, but that way lies madness!
Frankly, I think the moral of the story is that I’m out of ice-cream, which may seem irrelevant to you, but you aren’t the one jonesing for it right now.
That aside, I’m going for the “get the Indian Territory map if that’s where you’re going” moral to this story. If you want to find your way around the reservations in the four corners, you’re going to want that map.
And with that I’m off to dream of ice-cream.
…or better yet frybread!
I miss frybread.
I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t the fate of prominent atheists to end up with Christian apologists for spokesmen. Okay, I don’t literally believe in fate (either), but let’s just say the pattern is starting to look a little too common.
Yesterday, I came across this charming little tweet from professional bigot, Matt Barber.
Barber’s link connects us to an article discussing an account of Hitchens’s personal life, as related in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton. Who is Taunton? He is one of the Christian apologists whom Hitchens debated in his later years. According to Taunton, the two had become close friends in those years, close enough for him to be present throughout much of Hitchens’s struggle with terminal cancer. According to Taunton, Hitchens gave serious thought to converting in those years. Taunton doesn’t say that Hitchens did convert, but he spends virtually the entire book exploring the possibility that Hitchens might have. The author of the article in Barber’s link, Al Perretta, contributes his own 2 cents by telling us that Hitchens own preemptive remarks about the possibility of a deathbed conversion indicate just how much he was thinking about it. If Taunton is content to imply the possibility, Perretta wants to make damned sure we get the hint. And then of course, we have the likes of Matt Barber who sees in the whole thing an opportunity to taunt unbelievers.
It’s a bit like a game of telephone. What Hitchens actually said and thought in private moments before his death we will never know, but we do get to see how Taunton’s account of it takes on ever more polemic significance as others proceed to recount the story. Honestly, I don’t doubt that Taunton and Hitchens were close friends, but I do think Taunton serves his friend poorly by using him in this manner. Damned poorly! Taunton may think his efforts restrained, even respectful, but he has made Hitchens into a commodity of sorts, a chip those in his own camp will now use shamelessly to promote their own views. Whatever respect Taunton may think he has paid Hitchens in writing this, it’s fairly gone by the time we get to the likes of Barber. I somehow doubt Barber will prove to be unusual.
The story is hardly without precedent!
I remember when Anthony Flew changed his views on the existence of God. As an active participant in Christian Forums, I lost track of the number of times someone came into the open debate forums to announce Flew’s ‘conversion’. More than a few would-be apologists really seemed to think this odd sort of authority argument would (or should have) swayed a number of unbelievers. A popular atheist had changed his mind. Shouldn’t we do the same?
The full story in Flew’s case would prove far more complicated than the conversion narrative continually promoted by Christian apologists. It doesn’t appear that Flew ever came to believe in the God of Abraham, though he did seem to adopt a Deist position on the existence of God, but this distinction was often lost in the words of sundry believers proclaiming the miracle of Flew’s conversion. Questions remain to this day about just how much some of Flew’s final work, There is a God, really is the work of Flew and how much of it is really the work of Christian apologists. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that something was wrong in Flew’s very public change of position. Flew, a lifelong atheist thus spent his final days voiced, as it were by Christian apologists, his final position on the existence of God communicated by others, many of whom were all to happy to treat Flew’s newfound Deism as a victory for Christianity itself.
Had the Anthony Flew whose writings we all knew become a Christian, he certainly would have made a far more eloquent Christian than his latter-day friends made him out to be.
This sort of response may seem harsh, even disrespectful, but Flew’s final days certainly produced a number of red flags. We don’t normally learn the views of professional philosophers from their long-time debate opponents, and a professional philosopher writes his own material. For reasons which may or may not be understandable, this did not happen in There is a God, and it isn’t entirely clear that he understood the full contents of that work. Whether or not Flew was clear about what he was doing in those final days, most of us will never know. That many in the Christian community were all-too happy to milk Flew’s shift of position for all it was worth and more is plain to see. Flew’s “conversion” left us all with more of a scandal to ponder than a novel argument on the age-old topic.
As with many public debates, I often found the terms of this one rather oddly skewed. I have often wondered if it is really appropriate to call the mere decision to believe in God a ‘conversion’. When people convert to a faith, they do a lot more than simply change their mind about the truth of a claim. They say prayers. They go to church. The embrace doctrines. They nest, as it were, in their new worldview. For his part, Flew seems simply to have decided that a God of some sort was an essential part of any explanation for the world as we know it. Yet, Christians still proclaim the truth of Flew’s conversion, seemingly immune to the fact that he didn’t end up in their camp either.
…and of course there is always Lady Hope!
My first exposure to this story came in some college classroom, a history class I believe. We were discussing Charles Darwin when someone interjected the comment that he had recanted toward the end of his life. The comment hadn’t been at all relevant to the discussion, and the instructor simply didn’t bite. So, we were back on topic in no time, and I found myself wondering what little story I had missed.
That little story was the story of Elizabeth Cotton, or ‘Lady Hope’ as she was called. She claimed to have spoken to Darwin near the end of his life wherein she found him reading Hebrews. Darwin expressed regrets about his scientific publications according to Cotton and discussed plans for holding a congregation in his summer house. If her account is true, then Cotton appears to be the only person to whom Darwin expressed these views. He didn’t tell them to his wife, a devout believer who might well have been quite relieved to hear of his newfound faith. Neither did he communicate them to any of his children or colleagues. But he did communicate these views to Elizabeth Cotton, according to Cotton anyway, and this fact was interesting enough to earn her a little bit of fame among Christian speakers near the end of the 19th century.
So, you see this latest bit about Hitchens is hardly without precedent. It seems that when unbelievers become believers, Christian apologists are often the first to know. Hell, sometimes they are the last to know as well. And sometimes they are the only ones to know at all.
I gather the rest of us are supposed to take their account on faith.
So, how does Taunton pay his respects to his former friend? Consider the quotes he uses to open the earliest chapters of his book:
“Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear that it is true.” – Blaise Pascal.
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins have you never had the courage to commit.” – Oscar Wilde.
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis
“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” Shakespeare.
…you get the idea.
These are the pithy little one liners that Taunton uses to frame each of his opening chapters. Yes, the point of each quote is every bit as obvious as it may seem.You might expect a book about a deceased friend to use quotations illustrating something admirable about him, even to outline qualities one might find worthy of praise. Taunton is of course using these quotes to take Hitchens apart.
In “A Requiem for Unbelief,” Taunton relates his personal history with Hitchens and explains his decision to write the book. He describes Hitchens’s life as one of rebellion against God (thus establishing from the beginning a narrative that refuses to take Hitchens’s atheism seriously). Taunton also describes Hitchen?” With this remarkably disrespectful tribute to an old friend, it is no surprise that Taunton would lead the chapter with a quote suggesting that people such as Hitchens must know deep down that he is wrong.
The notion that atheists really believe in God after all is a pretty common theme among Christian apologists. Taunton clearly means to use Hitchens’s life to provide an example of this, an anecdote to show us what so many apologists take for granted, that deep down the most strident atheist is really a frustrated believer of some sort. Thus, Taunton transforms Hitchens’s life into contemptuous dismissal of the very views Hitchens proclaimed throughout that very life. Hitchens didn’t really mean what he said, so Taunton would have us believe, and no-one knows this better than Taunton.
Next Taunton proceeds to tell us that Hitchens’s atheism is rooted in youthful rebellion (hence the line about courage to commit sin) and goes on to explain that Hitchens’s love of learning was little more than an effort to improve his skills in verbal sparring (hence the suggestion that an education was wasted on him). He then borrows from Hitchens’s own allusion to ‘keeping two books’, so to speak, to set aside virtually everything Hitchens ever said in public. Taunton extends this metaphor to suggest quite simply that Hitchens’s public atheism was a false front and that he held other thoughts in private. Who would know those private thoughts?
Taunton, of course!
Taunton’s friendship with Hitchens thus becomes an interesting authority claim, a basis from which to shred everything Hitchens told us about his own life and thought.
…and if your getting a little ill at this point, then I’m right there with you.
This is not the sort of book one writes about a friend. It isn’t even the sort of book one writes about a respected opponent. It is the sort of book one writes about an individual one has already dismissed. It is also the sort of book one writes about a bit of personal capital, an investment ripe for returns. In these opening chapters, Taunton sheds sleight on Hitchens character at every turn. The exercise is as crass as it is dishonest.
Toward the middle of the book Taunton’s narrative softens, but why shouldn’t it? He has already dismissed everything Hitchens ever fought for with a few condescending narrative themes. Having established the sad truth about Hitchens’s personal motivations, Taunton can afford to be more subtle in the later chapters. Following 9-11, Taunton wants us to believe Hitchens embarked on a long trajectory toward faith in God. He began to struggle with moral principles and to explore scripture. This, Taunton seems to suggest was the root of their friendship, and the basis for their many private conversations about Christianity.
Taunton recounts many of these discussions in extravagant detail. One could perhaps wonder how he remembers those details so vividly, but I’m more interested in the transition from argument to story-line. The conversations with Hitchens that Taunton describes are full of disputation, point and counter-point. They are discussions in which two men contest with each other over what is and what isn’t true. But of course, these arguments come to us within the larger frame of a story told by Taunton himself. Not surprisingly, the course of each argument flows nicely into the story-line Taunton has chosen to provide us. It is a story-line that resolves each of the disputes quite unsurprisingly in Taunton’s favor.
Taunton’s single-minded handling of the issue is hardly subtle. He consistently gives himself the final word and of course Hitchens concedes a number of things to Taunton, but only in these private conversations. Hitchens accepts arguments without rejoinder, at least in the chapters of Taunton’s book, and he takes correction without rebuke. The final chapters of this work are a record of debates clearly dominated by Taunton, at least according to Taunton himself. And of course each of these arguments provides another step in the story of Hitchens’s transformation toward a believing Christian. Taunton stops short of claiming the transformation actually occurred, though he wants us to believe it may well have, that Hitchens might have made it to the one true faith as Taunton understands it. Hell, Taunton even assures us that Hitchens would never have converted to Catholicism. If he converted, Taunton would have us believe, it must have been to the right kind of Christianity.
If Hitchens never said anything about his conversion, what are we to make of that? Perhaps it means he didn’t convert at all, but perhaps, the story-line here seems to suggest, it is because he can’t. Hitchens was too committed to his own public personae, or so Taunton would have us believe. he couldn’t afford to tell us if he really believed in God after all. He was already too invested in a godless public personae. So, Hitchens couldn’t tell us how he really felt.
What are we to expect of a man who kept two books?
One of the more striking features of Taunton’s narrative is the pe-emptive arguments he lays out in the course of the book. Hitchens lack of an explicit statement of faith is easily explained by his allusions to keeping two-books of his own life. Will atheists object to this account? Well of course, but that is just because we are fighting over Hitchens body, as Taunton describes the issue. Atheists skeptical of claims that Hitchens either embraced Christianity or came damned close to it are just too busy keeping score. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant example of projection than that, but it seems to be par for the course in this book.
Taunton seems to regard his friendship with Hitchens as unimaginable in the eyes of many, especially in the eyes of unbelievers. That he also takes Hitchens’s willingness to become friends with a Christian to be evidence of interest in conversion suggests that if anyone has trouble wrapping his mind around such a friendship it is Taunton himself.
It seems clear enough that Taunton doesn’t really take the possibility of a meaningful life as an atheist seriously. We can’t even tell a child from a piglet, as he suggests. Our worldview denies the possibility of meaningful moral scruples, according to Taunton. So, if he encounters an unbeliever with a profound sense of moral values – if Taunton allows himself to see this in such a person – it can only mean one thing, that that atheist isn’t really an atheist after all. He is a Christian waiting to get out. Short of an actual conversion, this is the best Hitchens could ever be to Taunton. And so Taunton’s own inability to imagine his own friendship becomes proof positive that his friend’s character must really be as Taunton would make of it.
Hitchens, it would seem, wasn’t really an unbeliever, and the only people who know it are the Christians whose faith he denounced publicly throughout his entire life. All in all, it’s a pretty shameless production. Once again, we find an unbeliever really does believe in God after all, or very nearly so. The trouble is that he only told a believer about all of this, at least according to the believer.
Taunton may think this is a novel story.
I think it’s a rather tiresome cliché.
Catherine Croll (Anna Wyndham) writes about violent pornography. She’s a well known feminist and a successful scholar. So, what is she doing singing the praises of Phyllis Schlafly?
Well it seems that something is missing from Catherine’s life, and that something is the family that conservative anti-feminist Schlafly warned women about so many decades past. Coming home to help her ailing mother, Catherine finds herself living near her college boy-friend, Don Harper (played by Frank Delaney) and his wife. Don’s wife is Catherine’s own former friend and roommate, Gwen (Shelly Wozniak). The two of them have two children. Catherine can see that they are struggling, and yet she can’t help but envy them. Seeing them makes her rethink some of her own life choices, and a part of her wishes she could exchange her life for Gwen’s. Impossible, right?
But what if it isn’t?
As it turns out, Gwen has second thoughts about her own life, and Don? Well, Don still fancies Catherine. So, it just may be that she can have him after all. It may well be that she can step right into Gwen’s life as Gwen runs off to pursue an advanced degree of her own.
Yep! The ghost of Trading Places haunts this play. It does indeed.
There isn’t a lot of live theater on the North Slope of Alaska. No, there isn’t. Heck, there isn’t a lot of movie theater on the North Slope. Nope! Hell, there isn’t even a lot of television theater in my own home. (Okay, that’s my own choice, but still!). So, I often check to see if anything is playing at a local theater when I’m in Anchorage. This time the answer was yes, at Cyrano’s, and my schedule didn’t even stop me. So, there I sat watching the opening scenes of this play and realizing for the first time what it was about.
The play is Rapture Blister Burn, written by Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Krista M. Schwarting. It’s been playing at Cyrano’s since April 1st and it’ll continue running through the 24th. If you’re in the area, and if the F-word doesn’t scare you, it’s definitely worth seeing.
So anyway, there I sat, watching as a series of inter-related stories began to unfold on the small stage in front of me. Much of the action takes place in a class Catherine teaches during the summer. Put together at the last minute, the class ends up with exactly two students, Gwen, and a young college student named Avery (Olivia Shrum). When Catherine’s mother, Alice (Sharon Harrison) joins the conversation, the result is three generations of women gathered together to discuss feminist theory. We are soon treated to a quick and dirty version of Betty Friedan’s critique of domesticity, followed shortly thereafter by an account of Schlafly’s critique of feminism. Throughout this, the focus of discussion remains squarely on the trade-off between family life and a career as each of the characters weighs in on the (dis-)advantages of each.
I’m not normally a fan of explicit theory in a story-line. I always want to ask the writer to write an essay if that’s what they really want to do. In this case, however, all this theory really is part of a story. The real question here is how the women use these theories to make sense of their own lives and to communicate with one another about the decisions each of them face. We are asked to consider the theories, yes, but we are also invited to think about what each theory means to the characters invoking them.
Oddly enough, it is Gwen (the stay at home mother) who champions Friedan and Catherine (the single woman with a successful career) who keeps telling us that Schlafly “had a point.” Avery and Alice are there largely to provide a running commentary as each of the two main participants struggle to rework their own life stories in light of the course material. This is very much a story about women in their middle-ages, women with enough life behind them to have a few regrets and with enough ahead of them to feel a trace of hope.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to say how much fun the dialogue can be in this play. each of the characters comes into her own at some point in the story. Even Don has his moments, but for my money Avery has the best lines. Perhaps, it’s just the wicked joy that Shrum seems to take in playing her. At any rate, she had me laughing. But then they all did at one time or another.
Catherine’s praise for Schlafly is ironic, of course. We are supposed to understand this is a heresy of sorts, and yet it’s a heresy born of a deeply personal dilemma. For all her success, Catherine is clearly not happy, and she sees in Gwen’s family something that is missing in her own life. She will of course get a chance to test this theory. She will get Don back, if only briefly. She will get a chance to take care of Gwen’s youngest child, and she will see this arrangement all fall apart before the end of the summer. Gwen will give up grad school and return home. Don will prove himself unwilling to keep up with a successful spouse and opt for the comfortable life he has already made for himself, leaving Catherine with little to do but take up her promising career once again and plow through her successful life without a steady relationship.
It is perhaps not such a bad fate for Catherine, so it would seem. She is free despite herself. In the end, we are told Schlafly was right, though perhaps the lonely fate of a successful feminist is not so bad after all.
I’m back in the North Slope now and still wondering what it was I watched. I find myself in the ever so odd position of feeling a bit out-cyniced. That doesn’t often happen to me. There is a story in here about families. It’s not a very pretty one. Don and Gwen are pathetic. They had created a family out of their own personal failures, and in the course of the story, they recreated it when their newfound courage failed them once again. Catherine and Avery are the only ones who walk away from the story with anything like a future, but they do so with little hope for families of their own. In Catherine’s case, at least, that is a genuine loss. She did want to have her cake and eat it too, and in this case she just isn’t going to get to do that.
So, how do I feel about this? It depends on the stories of the moral.
The play is at its strongest if we minimize the lesson. This can be a story about how life has a way of refuting our theories and foiling our choices. As a story about middle-aged people, this is also a story about how decisions once meant to create a life become the source of limitations inhibiting our lives. We see in this story how Catherine once sacrificed a relationship for a career only to find (too late) the choice cost her more than she imagined. Don and Gwen both chose a family life over career ambitions only to find their own family languishing in the lack of professional rewards. Each of these characters seems to find the down-side of their past decisions a bit more significant than they once imagined. It’s an excellent story about the many ways that simply being human can damned well get in the way of trying to be something else. That’s a lesson I can identify with.
As specific statement about feminism, I can’t help thinking the play is a bit more objectionable. It’s view of family life is especially grim, perhaps unfairly so. (By perhaps, I probably mean something more like “almost certainly.”) What the play says about career women seems still more egregious. It asks us to accept that this one woman, Catherine, must choose between a family and a career, and of course the real problem here is just how much we may generalize about her dilemma. That is where I find myself wanting to back out of the premise.
It isn’t just that I think Catherine should have her cake and eat it too. I could swear that I know women who have done precisely that. I’ve dated women who’ve done that. Hell, I’ve worked with and/or for women who have raised families and enjoyed successful careers. I don’t doubt the stress of doing both may have made misery of their lives on at least a few occasions, and I don’t doubt the cost of trying to do both falls harder on women than it does men. I don’t even doubt that in some individual cases, handling both becomes too much, but my point is that women have done it.
Of course, I can accept the premise that trying to have both isn’t working for a single character in a wonderful little play. But I can’t help thinking the story isn’t just about her. There is a reason, she and the others spend so much time telling us about feminist theory, and it isn’t because this is only a particular story of a particular woman and her particular set of friends.
Which brings us to yet another story. Whatever else this play is about, it definitely contains a story about feminism. But in this respect it is NOT a story about middle-aged women at all. It is a story about elderly and deceased women. I can’t help wondering at the focus on Friedan and Schlafly. These are the iconic figures that haunt the tales told by the characters in this story, the figures who have shaped the stories of those characters. Their choices have thus been framed in terms of gender politics as they were defined quite some time ago. I’m a little out of my element here, but I feel safe in suggesting other theorists might have provided these characters with an entirely different set of questions to struggle with. This is an interesting story, but I suspect one that missed a few options in the telling.
By ‘missed’ I might mean ‘denied’.
(Whenever I’m a Cyrano’s I can’t help wishing I’d been around for a few of these plays. …Jihad Jones?)