Sincerity is Bullshit, or Fuck Off, Holden Caufield, Again, Some More

Hello, it is time to rant again!

And because of my blogging schedule, this rant is proximally—though not entirely—inspired by a thing that happened two weeks ago. Breaking News, 1870s Style! (Fox did just show “RENT” live, though, and God knows that’s relevant.)

If you’re unaware of the Gillette ad telling men not to be dicks, that happened. A lot of guys freaked the fuck out about it, because a lot of guys get really angry at the suggestion that they should maybe try to get their shit together, like, you suggest that maybe some of their shit could be in the same room (and there could maybe be less of it, but the KonMari thing is another can of rage) and you unleash an avalanche of HOW DARE YOU, I HAVE NEVER ACTED BADLY AND ALSO THE FOUNDING FATHERS FOUGHT AND DIED FOR OUR RIGHT TO BE ECONOMY-SIZED DOUCHEBAGS.

This is not about those guys. I get those guys, not in the sense of understanding or condoning them or not wanting spiders to lay eggs in their nasal passages, but in the sense that they are a familiar and easily-explained phenomenon. You check the Defensive Inadequate Ragewad box, you giggle at the guy who tried to flush his razor down the toilet, and you move on.

What I don’t get are the people who smugly point out that, well, Gillette just did this for marketing purposes and therefore it is totally invalid and nothing to celebrate, because clearly the rest of us were under the impression that large corporations ran entirely on the love of small children and the tears of fairies and needed a harsh awakening from the only people who truly understand. Some of these people are clearly guys trying to disguise the aforementioned Defensive Inadequate Ragewad tendencies behind a transparent veil of anti-corporate sentiment, but some are not, and some are women, and…I don’t get this.

I am not a fan of capitalism, as a general rule, and definitely not a fan of the unrestrained US version where basically our leaders openly masturbate over Captain Planet and/or Dickens villains. My political tendencies are best described as “pragmatic socialist.” Some of what advertising does is a legitimate problem, because it misleads people (whether factually or via the “buy this thing and you will be happier” model), feeds into stereotypes or destructive ideals, and so forth.

Objecting to the presence of ads in general, or the use of existing media for them (I am no fan of Yoko Ono either, but every time someone brings up the Nike thing, my eyes roll: so she made a little money by letting them use a song, so what? The song is still out there in the original version), or the equation of sincere with worthwhile and profitable with insincere…is fucking insufferable, not to put it too strongly. It’s the Reality-Bitesiest, RENT-iest approach to life ever, and all of the point-of-view characters in those works are awful goddamn people (except Jeanne Garafolo and the gay guy in RB, and maybe Mimi in Rent).

First of all, as I may have hinted before: yes, we know. WE KNOW. You aren’t the first person to note the distinction between corporations and Santa Claus. We are adults. We live in the world. We know how it works, and you? Do not sound smarter by pointing it out. You’re being the equivalent of the “friend” who slides up when you’re eating a hamburger and starts talking calories and saturated fats: dude, if I wanted a nutrition lecture, I’d have stayed awake in PE class, NOW SHUT IT.

Second: sincerity is bullshit.

Let’s say the motives are completely amoral and the company would have put out a pro-murdering-puppies ad if it thought the revenue was there.

So what?

The ad is still out there, which means that the message is out there—and yes, you can be all iconoclastic “well advertising doesn’t shape *my* ideals” but it does for a lot of people, and also nobody fucking likes you, Gary. There have been a number of studies showing that, while ads are not the only deciding factor in how people think, they are an influence for most of the population (and those of you about to use the word “sheeple” can go die in a fire right now). Seeing particular concepts used to sell things means society, or a part of it, sees value and appeal in them. It’s related to the reason we don’t use “fat” or “gay” as an insult, no matter how awful the person we’re insulting is.

And frankly, if the result is good, I could not give a shit about the motives behind it. (Obvious disclaimer that this doesn’t apply if we’re talking one step in a long con to steal your kidneys—that’s a difference between short- and long-term results, not results and motives.) It’s like when a Painfully Earnest chick in high school was whining about people who joined Habitat for Humanity just to put it on their college application—you really think the folks who get housing out of the deal care, Elizabeth? Really? Well, you’re a fucking idiot, then, and one who cares way more about purity policing than effectiveness, by which I mean a completely nonhelpful fucking idiot.

Plus? The fact that enough PR wonks at a big company think LGBTA rights or feminism or whatever make for profitable messaging is a sign that those ideals are doing pretty damn well. If a spreadsheet puts “love is love” or “maybe don’t be a rapey asshat” in the same category as family Christmas trees, Little League games, and supermodels in Corvettes, it’s because it thinks enough of us do, too—and PR spreadsheets don’t, I’m given to understand, come to those conclusions absent of evidence. How is that not a good thing?

Third, and bearing in mind that I do not love the megacorps, companies are made up of people, and people—you may want to sit down for this—can have more than one motive.

I know, right?

Hold on and have some clean pants ready: that’s true even when one motive is money.

I write books. I enjoy writing books, and I try to do it well. Odds are I’d write even if I wasn’t being paid, but I really like to get paid. Money can be exchanged for goods and services, and those include vodka. So, while a lot of what I write is what I want to write, I have absolutely worked toward markets: I’ve gone with one storyline rather than another because the subject matter is more popular and I’ve made revisions to avoid weirding out audiences too much. There are lines I won’t cross—jealousy as love, “oh my god it’ll never fit” virgins, and so forth—but if by going with one story I like rather than another I can make more money? I’ll absolutely do that, and I’m not ashamed.

(I’ve done some of my best work that way, because really, the inside of my own head is not a magical garden that births perfect specimens of Art. Listening and responding to an audience is an excellent quality even when you leave money out of it.)

Final decisions about ads are based on profit, absolutely. However, it’s not impossible or even unlikely that a number of people in PR really do believe in the message they’re sending, especially in these cases, and are doing their best work because of it. Working for money doesn’t invalidate that at all. (I remember the reactions to the end of “Mad Men,” and how people were insisting that if Don did make the Coke ad then HE HAD LEARNED NOTHING AND ALL WAS IN VAIN because there was no way he could, say, go back to working at an ad agency and supporting his family while sending a genuinely good-if-schmaltzy message in said ads and maybe having his ducks in some kind of row personally, nope, either you run off into the sixties and reject all works of The Man or you are forever lacking a soul. I remember thinking that these people were morons, and I still think so.)

Anne Shirley going into full-on drama mode because her story mentions baking powder is not a role model—she was a college student at the time, IIRC, which is a fairly insufferable age—and neither is whatever juvenile pouty Holden-Durden-Hawke conglomeration of suck spawns the But It’s All Just Selling Out, MAAAAAN hordes.

These people irritate me partially because they’re pretentious assholes, but also because this particular form of pretentious assholery feeds into a mindset that really hurts actual artists, like, the ones who are trying to make a living from it. If earning money from what you make—if making it to earn money–taints it, or means you can’t celebrate that creation or its message, then the conclusion is that all artists should work “for exposure” and your art is only worthwhile if it’s obscure and you die in a garret. On a social level, it’s also fucking terrible: if I’ve heard one story about a nonprofit that paid its workers sub-minimum wage while expecting them to do sixty hours a week because it’s “in a good cause,” I’ve heard fifty.

This is awful for artists (and it’s also hyper-privileged, because it means that only people with substantial personal resources can make True Art), and it’s even worse for art. As a reader, and a viewer, and a listener, and someone who’s bought a painting or two, I don’t want the predominant standard to be obscure iconoclastic Visions made by people who can’t take criticism. As one of those social justice warriors you hear about, I don’t want the only venue for messages of social change to be street-level movements with hand-painted signs, much as I’m fond of them, or organizations whose claim to fame is never having made a buck.

Yes, that ad is made by a large corporation. Yes, that corporation can probably do better in many ways, and no, the ad doesn’t excuse it, nor does it mean we shouldn’t hold the company accountable on those issues. (We, also, are capable of doing multiple things! No, really! No, even multiple things with the same entities!) But it’s good that it got made, and it’s good on the company for making it,  and for the people who complain about “cynicism,” I’d much rather have cynicism in a good cause.

Cynicism gets things done. Sincerity is bullshit.

Five and Six of Swords

Hello! It’s time once again for Izzy and Booze Explain the Tarot, the only vaguely-occult blog entries I know of that feature this much swearing.

Five of Swords

Here we see a light-haired person in masculine medieval attire who has All The Swords: two in his right hand, one in his left, and two on the ground facing him. He seems pretty pleased with the state of things. In the background, two other people have turned their backs on him. They might be pissed, or resigned to defeat, or just sad, but the foreground guy doesn’t care, because he has All The Swords. They’re his. So there.

Systematically, this means dark luck in matters of air, which leads to the conclusion that either the person being read for is not, in fact, Mr. Excessive Arsenal Or Possibly Profitable Resale Business, but the folks in the back, or that what the querent thinks of as triumph is actually not great. Fives and sevens are generally pretty complicated, because all dark luck has a silver lining and all bright luck has a rake waiting in the grass. So on the one hand, dude has all the swords, but swords are pretty heavy to carry, and those other people probably hate him now: power/knowledge/freedom comes at a price, and they might not be worth it. On the other hand, those people in the back are disarmed and defeated, but they’re alive. The swords aren’t actually in them.

Complicating things more: the guy left his foes alive, which is not the smartest thing to do to your enemies on a short-term level. Is he more honorable or humanitarian than his smirk makes him out to be? Are they former friends, which makes this situation more emotionally painful but maybe means they won’t come back with an army of trees or dudes disguised as trees? Is he doing the Evil Overlord thing where he lets them go so he can gloat and then they come back and, y’know, trees and beheadings and so on?

Fucked if I know.

That’s kind of a theme there. The more specific meanings of this card include conflict, discord, treachery (either for or against you) and generally being a dick. These are all situations where it’s tough for at least one party involved to know what’s going on—treachery sort of depends on it, otherwise it’s just aggro—and this card says that even if that guy thinks he knows, he doesn’t. You can win temporarily by thinking only of yourself, but you leave a lot of people thinking you’re an asshole (maybe those two are alive to represent the fact that you really can’t get rid of them all, as Thulsa Doom could tell you), some of them are going to act on that, and at least a few of them stand a pretty good chance of being effective.

This card can say that you’re going to get fucked over, and it won’t be fair, but you’ll survive and can regroup. Or it can say that if you’re going to act without thinking about other people, you might do pretty well for a time, but it probably won’t be as great as you think. You should be prepared for that if you go ahead, and definitely don’t turn into a snake.

Six of Swords

One to three people are taking a boat full of swords across a body of water. When there are two people, one is rowing while the other sits huddled in a cloak, sometimes with a kid by them. The solo traveler is usually rowing, but once in a while just sits there hanging out with their sharp objects, as you do. There’s often land visible, more often than not in front or to the side of the boat—which is, by the way, definitely more canoe than luxury yacht.

The meaning of this card, ninety percent of the time, comes down to Fuck This Noise—or, to go with the swords and be gratuitously British, Bugger This For a Game of Soldiers.

Sixes are the journey-slash-training montage cards, as I’ve mentioned, and swords, for reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere, tend to be the least happy about it—partly for stupid Victorian reasons, but partly because power, freedom, and knowledge generally take some struggle to get and are heavy things. (Also because sixes are usually good, overall, but they’re not trivial.) Even when this is an easy choice, like going off to a college you really like—well, as Homestar says, you’re gonna have to share a bathroom with some kid from Alabama who kinda sucks, and eat dubious cafeteria food, and deal with classes where you might be over your head.  Or you might decide to learn a new subject, or skill, but find that comes with giving up a fair amount of your energy and free time. (Just picking up a new thing casually is more of an Ace/Two situation.)

Those are the best-case scenarios. Sometimes, the card just gets super basic and means travel. Most of the specific meanings, though, have to do with getting away from a bad situation—leaving the old and familiar behind, even if it hurts. The excessive damn number of swords in the boat represents rationality, and the water is emotions. Whatever the journey here is, you’re probably at least a little bit conflicted about it, with the possibility of feeling like absolute shit, but you know damn well it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I support Marie Kondo’s approach to housecleaning—“if it doesn’t spark joy or you don’t actively need it, throw it out”—but with interpersonal relationships. If contact with a particular person, group, or situation doesn’t make you feel something better than obligation at least half the time, fucking ditch them. Dump the motherfucker already; single life is great, and you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship until you can enjoy it. Stop calling your toxic family member, and stop taking their calls. Find friends who aren’t using you as an unpaid therapist or a human wailing wall, and ankle the ones who are—they’ll either shape up or find another sap to put up with them, and either way it’s not your problem. If you can’t leave your shitty job or your horrible roommate yet, start thinking of what would let you do that and see if you can start working on it.

Knowledge, power and freedom come from knowing that you’re not obligated to sacrifice your own happiness for someone else’s bullshit ideal, from pushing through when other people or society or your own mortal uncertainty about the future threaten to manipulate you back into a bad situation, and from being willing to strike out into uncharted territory because, to paraphrase Giles, it has to be better than what you’re leaving.

It probably will be, and this is the card that says so.

Western PA Media Report

I’m back home, after three weeks with my parents, and my liver is finally starting to recover. (Did you know they make pineapple wine? I know that now. I also know that it costs six dollars. And I might be out of the will again.)

It’s always interesting staying there, because my media habits change. I end up watching whatever my parents watch, and doing most of my reading from the local library, which is a terrific mix of new stuff and medical romances they’ve had around since the thirties. (There’s an entire shelf of books with names like “The Doctor’s Secret” and “The Doctor’s Decision,” it’s never the same doctor, and it’s never a female doctor, because it’s the thirties and romance.) Here are…well, not a few, but some…scattered thoughts as a result:

  • I kind of liked the Polar Express movie. I know it’s supposedly narmy as hell and all kinds of 20whatever Uncanny Valley, but…I don’t know, I was into it. Maybe I played enough crappy 20whatever video games that I’ve become more inured to CGI faces, or maybe the pineapple wine had a lot to do with it.
  • Watched two episodes of Poirot (Vicar-Adjacent Murder is a good genre with my family), and apparently the leading cause of death among wealthy white men in the 1930s was antique daggers applied very precisely to the neck, despite the murderers’ lack of previous experience. Was there a correspondence course?
  • Leading cause of death for sort-of-wealthy white women who’d done something dubious but hadn’t actually murdered that particular guy? Veronal. Ask for it by name!
  • I read one of the aforementioned doctor romances, wherein the central Social Issue was narcotics. It was a weird mix of compassionate modern “hey, addicts just have a disease, do what you can to help them in society” and freaking the fuck out over pot, because the devil’s lettuce leads directly to morphine, or “dope” as the kids call it.
  • Boy howdy does “hey, this strange woman obviously doesn’t want to talk but I’m going to keep talking to her anyhow because I can” from a hero make me nope out of a book in Chapter 1, doubly so when that book was written in the 21st century. Not a “cute” dick move, just a dick move.
  • John Michael Greer’s Monsters not only kept me entertained on a ten-hour bus ride but gave me some excellent ideas for future writing and/or RPG campaigns. Really neat perspective on a lot of legends.
  • TBS was showing In the Good Old Summertime as part of a marathon of every movie ever with a Christmas scene in it, and holy fuck, how many movies have been based on The Shop Around the Corner anyhow?
  • I feel like “fall in love via correspondence” as a plot device doesn’t go over nearly as well now that most of us have spent some time on dating sites and, well, falling for someone’s mind is all well and good until you meet up and find that he looks like Alfred E. Neuman and is wholly unfamiliar with the concept of deodorant.
  • Paladin of Souls is just as good as I remember, and I love that the central issue in the heroine’s previous marriage has nothing to do with sex.

Next week, I’ll be back on Tarot, and then probably Why Originality is Bullshit.



Swords Three and Four

2019! The year that…something. Despite the Tarot-ness of this blog, I actually make very few long-term predictions. With any luck, it’s the year that I finish Drunk Tarot, or, in this case, Idle Bus-Riding Tarot: not that I don’t enjoy it, but given that there’s one and three-quarters Minor Arcana suits left, the timetable seems obvious unless I get abducted by aliens or my life gets ridiculous, and I’d prefer neither happened. Probably. Except for values of “ridiculous” that involve glamorous parties and interesting men and/or values of “aliens” likewise.

Insert segue here.

Three of Swords

Not much variation on this one, and not much subtlety either: a three-way heart-ka-bab. Some decks show it raining in the background, and others show a whole person getting stabbed, in case you didn’t get the message from the plain old excessively stabbed vital organ. Once in a while there’s an eyeball on the heart, which honestly makes me feel better about the swords. A heart with an eyeball on it should be stabbed at least half the time, probably more, and you want to be thorough about it.

With or without the variations, this card is fucking emo.

As per usual, swords often get the negative take when maybe they shouldn’t, and systemically, this one represents real growth in knowledge, power, and freedom. This can be painful, because blah blah innocence is bliss, power corrupts, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but it’s not like growth in emotions or willpower or material well-being isn’t.

Swords qualities can increase much more suddenly than qualities associated with the other suits, generally: significant changes in emotion or willpower tend to take a while to sink in, and dramatic and completely unexpected changes in material well-being are negative nine out of ten times. (Meeting a really amazing sexual partner, gaining money by unexpected inheritance or winning the lottery, or miraculous recoveries could all qualify, but on the other hand, most people expect those at least in the sense of hoping or daydreaming about them.) Many situations that involve significant increases in knowledge and freedom hit completely out of the blue, and many people are either thrust into positions of power or find themselves having to take control to prevent others from misusing authority. If the shanking portrayed is intrinsic to the card, it could still represent shock rather than pain as such.

Naturally, the traditional complex meaning is pain, heartbreak (thank you, Extremely Nuanced Tarot Designers), betrayal, and disappointment. But, and this is important, and also why I used the term “fucking emo,” above, this is not the total disaster shitshow that the Ten of Swords mostly means in these interpretations. All the stuff I just named happens to everyone (although “betrayal” is really subjective a lot of the time for most of us), everyone lives through it, and everyone learns from it—if only because the next time, and there will be a next time, we know we’ll survive. This card is the rejection letter, the nasty rumor, the breakup where you mix ice cream and rum and sing along to songs with a lot of plaintive guitar wailing.

The non-mnemonic meaning of this card, in fact, can be boiled down to Drunk Evanescence Songs: OMGTRAGIC in the moment, but not, in fact, an actual tragedy of any sort.

Four of Swords

If Three of Swords is Drunk Evanescence Songs, Four is Taking a Fucking Nap Already.

The picture is a figure, mostly but not always armored, lying down, mostly but not always in or on a tomb, with three swords above them and one at their side.

Despite the tomb, this card doesn’t really have anything to do with death most of the time. (General statement: most of the cards that appear to show dead bodies, or Death, don’t mean death. The Ten of Swords could be an exception, but even disaster isn’t that much disaster for most of us.  I actually can’t think of any cards that regularly do mean someone has or will die; the obvious material explanation for this is that people paying for Tarot readings don’t want to hear that sort of news, but on the other hand, there are plenty of cards in the deck that can be read as extremely unpleasant, so…I don’t know.)

The systemic reading doesn’t contradict the specific ones at all for this card. Four is stasis, swords are power, knowledge, and freedom, and most card-specific interpretations say that the Four of Swords is rest, stillness, exile, and solitude. You’ve done stuff. Maybe it was great, maybe not. Now it’s time to take a break, let what you’ve learned sink in, give yourself time to get used to a new role, or just get some damn sleep already.

Depending on your belief system, that could be death. But it’s usually not.




Why Tolstoy is Bullshit

I’m hanging out here in Pennsylvania. It’s a rare three weeks when I live with people: normally, I’m a single woman in a Boston apartment, working from home as an editor and going out every couple evenings, whether that’s to a LARP (the only way I spend the night in a situation where I need shoes to take a leak) or a party, a religious celebration or a night of drinking with friends. Right now, though, I’m living with my parents, who married in their thirties after years of being co-workers at boarding schools, continued to work at various schools until their retirement a while back, have two adult daughters, and enjoyed camping and backpacking until pulled ligaments and arthritis got in the way. My sister and her husband are also visiting. They live in LA normally, they’ve got one son, she teaches yoga and he’s a professional chef, and they’re way more enthusiastic about sports than any of the rest of us.

All of us are (reasonably, mortal life being what it is) happy.

I’m not gloating here. There’s a point, because Twitter’s latest crop of manbabies with too much free time has turned once again to romance, whining that happy endings are all the same and too predictable and blah blah blah, and someone is eventually going to quote fucking Tolstoy.

Tolstoy had some great ideas. That “happy families are all alike” bit isn’t one of them.

First of all, the idea that *unhappiness* is the condition with an infinity of singular forms is complete bullshit. Just to start, I majored in English, and my parents, like I mentioned, taught at boarding schools during my childhood, so I’ve observed a fair amount of petty unhappiness. I Have Pimples And Can’t Get Laid is pretty common, and  Will Smith wasn’t the first or last on the Parents Just Don’t Understand train. Older people? My Wife Doesn’t Get Me or Midlife Crisis: Did I Really Want to Be A Banker? are not exactly unique either. Hell, even the serious problems–bullying, bigotry, abuse, sickness, war–have a depressing familiarity. (My parents and I can predict most Law & Order episode resolutions by the time the show’s half over, and I have a decent record with true crime.)

Second, the idea that happy families are all the same is predicated on the idea that there’s only one way to be happy, to which I say: shut up, Jordan Peterson, and more generally, shut up, Victorian notions of “happy family.” You can be happy in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, living in the country with two kids and a dog, and many people are–but you can also be happy traveling the world with a same-sex partner, sharing an urban apartment with the rest of your triad, living contentedly alone, being a member of a celibate religious community, or raising a kid with your platonic BFF. You can be happy on a plane or a train, and while “in a box” sounds tougher, YKIOK.

(Not even touching “with a fox,” y’all.)

Even concentrating on romantic relationships and on just the end of a story,  married co-workers with kids have a very different dynamic than childless professionals, which in turn is different from a situation where one person stays home, or where one or both have professions that involve travel, or personal risk, or media attention. Living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh is not living in Boston, or on a ranch in California. Friends, family, and hobbies are all going to influence your lives, so endings where these things are different are different endings–unless you think that getting together with a romantic partner is the only thing that matters about life. (And dudes, frankly, that makes you sound more than a little unattractively desperate.)

*Then* there’s the fact that process matters. If your characters come from different situations, even superficially-similar HEAs don’t make the books “all the same.” No, they don’t. Are Macbeth and Hamlet the same play because they both end with a lot of people, including at least one king, dead? No? Then shut up. And go away. And suck on a wasp nest.  Originality, to the extent that it matters (and yes, there is definitely a Why Originality Is Bullshit essay forthcoming), exists in the space between the beginning and end, in the details of the plot and characters–in other words, in the story. I could drag in sonnets and haiku and, for an example on the other side, Shyamalan, but I hope to God you take my point as is.

Guys: when you start with the “romance novels can’t be quality literature because happy endings make everything repetitive,” you’re not *just* being pretentious mope-addicted assholes who bring down every social occasion. You’re also implying that there’s only one model for happiness in romantic relationships, and if you want to stick with that point of view, you’d better enjoy the company of Rick Santorum and Phyllis Schafly.

Yes, I know she’s dead. Take that as you will.

Now shut up. I have heavily-spiked hot chocolate to drink.