Games, Women, Growing Up, Remembrance

I want to talk a little bit about women.

I like to count myself as a feminist. Unapologetically. I would like to believe that I’ve been one more or less forever, and maybe on some level that’s true (and if so I credit early exposure to science fiction, which I’ll talk about later**), but really what I could point to as early feminism was more a matter of an idealized attitude about fair play, not any kind of studied assessment concerning women’s rights and so forth. My progress toward self-conscious feminism took a while.

First, a video:

Okay, it is that negative reaction she experienced which (a) I don’t “get” in any visceral way and (b) I find continually, almost universally shrugged off as “harmless” by people who otherwise would never dream of behaving that way. Which sets the stage for this:

Really, Tiedemann?  You really get that from a bunch of mouth breathers in basements playing online games?

It has been my experience that one of the components of “gaming” has always been a self-defensive insularity, an in-group “bunker mentality” that defaults to mindless rejection whenever anyone suggests that maybe the game in question is, you know, stupid or dangerous or fosters questionable attitudes.  Balance goes out the window when the game is threatened, even its accoutrements.  Online games or field sports, I don’t care which, there is a mindset that some adherents embrace which reduces reason to the buzzing of a fly when the game itself is threatened.  (You may not quite grasp this unless you have been threatened with bodily harm by members of a varsity football team for the mere suggestion that something else is more important for the school than new uniforms for them, that maybe it would be a bad idea to cut Band because there isn’t enough money in the budget for both.)

Combine that with the nature of in-groups and you have a perfect recipe for this kind of nonsense.

And yes, I think teaching people that just because they belong to a group gives them unquestioned privileges vis-à-vis The Rest Of The World is a formula for creating objectionable behaviors in certain members of that group.

In this case, the members of the He Man Woman Haters Club.

I grew up watching The Little Rascals on tv, and one of the repeated tropes was Alfalfa’s inability to “man up” and tell Darla to stay in her place.  Spanky and the others had their club and Darla and her friends attempted again and again to break into it.  Barring that, divide and conquer.  It was an early lesson in sexual politics, and I wonder sometimes if the writers and producers knew what it was they were portraying.  The subtext was the immasculation of Alfalfa, who continually embarrassed himself—and by extension The Gang—with his romantic goofball behavior when Darla winked at him, bent her finger, and drew him off for a tryst.*

The message was clear: girls are not to be trusted, not to be tolerated, unless you want to be a doofus like Alfalfa.

Then puberty hits.

Personally, boys who don’t know how to talk to girls well into adulthood I think don’t know how to talk to other boys, either, but the games template of childhood provides a format for pretense.  Don’t discuss feelings, don’t share anxieties, talk about the Game.  The Game substitutes for genuine sharing.

Who am I talking about?  Not a majority, certainly, or we would be unable to have this conversation on any level.  But a large enough slice of the male population to cause trouble.

Wait a minute, Tiedemann, you’re not blaming the games, are you?

Tempting as that is for me, no.  While I do believe the games reflect the attitudes of those who are involved in them, blaming the games is like blaming Jack Daniels for drunk driving.

(I don’t like most games, I admit.  I’m not competitive that way and most games are zero sum endeavors.  I like chess, but I don’t play it to win, and for some reason that seems to be okay in chess, there’s no chest beating of any kind.  But I was once nearly beaten up in a bar by a pissed off foosball player who invited himself into our game and got angry because I didn’t play to win.  I don’t like that attitude and I avoid it when I can and I find it wired into most games.)

Men who beat women, who killed them, who are outraged by feminism, who think in terms of “women’s proper place” are alien to me and rather pathetic—instead of working on themselves and their own shortcomings, they blame failure on everybody else, and the women in their lives are close and available for them to exercise what they conceive as their “manhood” in the most bestial way.  I would pity them but for the very real damage they do.

I wrote about that damage and one of my defining moments here.

I’m thinking about these things today because it happens to be an anniversary.  Twenty-three years ago today the Montreal Massacre occurred.  A frustrated, pathetic excuse of a human being decided (assuming such actions can be derived from a process of decision making) to vent his anger at failure by—wait for it—blaming women for his inability to fulfill himself.

But remembering that, I’m also thinking about the new women in my life.  I’m working for Left Bank Books now and in the past weeks of learning my way around I’ve been working with some of the coolest women around.  What a shame it would be if they couldn’t do what they do and be who they are because some bipeds with external genitals and low I.Q. held sway in our society and decided—because they lack the imagination or perception to see past surfaces and their own limbic reactions—women “shouldn’t be doin’ that kinda stuff.”

(As I’ve written before, I do credit my lifelong love of books and an early exposure to science fiction for preparing the ground for the feminism of my adulthood.  I’m hard pressed to think of a better antidote for what is, at base, a profoundly anti-intellectual cultural ill.  The inability to reason, to understand, to empathize, all this feeds the kind of insularity and self-limitation that can result in these deeply irrational—indeed, anti-rational—behaviors.  Do I think reading alone is a cure?  Of course not.  But, for cripessake, guys, read a book once in a while!  Get out of your own heads!)

I’m grateful to the women in my life: friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and I can say without reservation that I’d rather be in their club than in Spanky’s.

Better yet, let’s stop all this nonsense about clubs.  I never got my membership card in the He Man Woman Haters Club—I was too much a wimp to qualify—but then, I never applied.


*Tryst?  Why, yes.  What else is it?  She gets him off alone, there’s a lot of goofy grinning, sharing of a meal, coy conversation.  No, of course there’s no sex, but Darla has segregated Alfalfa away from the other boys and…it’s all done in such childish innocence, but really look at those interludes and analyze them, then imagine Darla and Alfalfa about ten years older.

And of course the proto-stereotyping of gender roles is right there.  Darla is the seductress—ostensibly she’s trying to break down the group cohesion among The Gang, but that’s secondary—and Alfalfa is the male naif, completely taken by Darla’s attention and unable to control himself—or even speak intelligently.  And of course when it’s over he’s the one who’s been embarrassed—been “had” by the female and made to look foolish.



** Science fiction was where I first and continually encountered strong, self-possessed female characters and models for what I came to believe women were, both potentially and preferably.  Sure, there were plenty of the standard models in SF, but there were also powerful, independent women who early on showed me that any assumptions about female inability, weakness, or ideas of “proper place” were all just noise.

American Epochs

I’m just noodling over an idea, perhaps not even an original one, but I’ve been acquiring and reading a number of books this last few years on American history, and given the tenor of this past year of national politics, I’ve been toying with the idea of “periods” of American history.  That is, definable epochs fundamentally different from that which went before.

What triggered this particular thread is on the desk in front of my now. Kevin Phillips’ new book, 1775: A Good Year For Revolution, recently published by Viking.

In his preface, Why 1775, he writes:

Seventeen Seventy-Five…stands for the somewhat forgotten and widely misunderstood first year of the American Revolution.  If 1775 hadn’t been a year of successful nation building, 1776 might have been a year of lost opportunity, quiet disappointment, and continued colonial status.

Basically, the book is about all the pesky networking, infrastructure, planning, and groundwork that preceded the Declaration of Independence and without which the actual rebellion, not to mention, the Revolution, would have been stillborn.

We tend not to think this way.  Not just Americans, but we exemplify it through an ongoing process of semi-deification of Significant Men.  We like to believe that without “these people” and their character, all these wonderful things would not have happened, and while there is certainly some truth to that—it’s hard to argue with the fact that if George Washington had been a different kind of person then the outcome would have been very different—it is by no means either the whole story or even sufficient to explain how things transpired.  But it’s easier to put a face on a period and blithely assume that it was all because of That One.

We don’t like the idea that without thoroughly, clever, and industrial stagecraft, the performance might never go on.

(Consider war.  While it might be somewhat true that battles are won by generals, at least in some instances, wars are won by logistics.  The people and, more importantly, the system responsible for getting the bullets to the front are more important to the overall effort than the guys with the guns, who after all can do nothing without those bullets.)

But this component of history is not sexy, so we tend to focus on heroes and gestures and sometimes even credit divine intervention rather than take note of all the nameless, faceless people who did the hard day-in day-out labor of building the systems that allowed for success.

That said, we still have the results to consider, and it occurred to me to toss a dime into the debate by suggesting that American history is demarcated into three epochs that are clearly definable.  By this I mean periods begun by events that fundamentally changed who we were as a nation.  Things which caused shifts in the common apprehension of our identity significantly different from what went before and led to long periods of more or less stable assumptions of what it meant to be an American.

The first of these is of course the Revolutionary period, which I contend spans the period from 1763 to 1801.  The end of the French and Indian War (in many ways the first world war) set colonial thinkers inexorably on the path to independence.  Without the treaties and the subsequent actions in the aftermath of that war, the components of the Revolution would not have coalesced.  American colonists during this period reconceived their identity away from British subjects to Americans.  The entire period is capped by the election of Thomas Jefferson where we see the political and cultural landscape “set” for the next 50 years, an end to revolutionary evolution and a settling into adjustment to a new order.

The second epoch, obviously, is the Civil War period, which I suggest lasted from 1850 till the end of Reconstruction, 1876, at which point again we see a stabilizing of the landscape, which endured in its major features until the Great Depression.

Which leads to the third epoch, the Depression/World War period, lasting from 1929 until the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we once more see a broad “settling in” and acceptance of the new vision of who and what we are that persists to this day.

In each instance, the significant consequence is that, as a nation, we changed our view of who we are and conducted ourselves as Americans differently than we did before.

I have no idea what the fulcrum of the next epoch will be, or whether it has already happened.  These things take time to recognize.  (It’s possible that 9/11 represents such an event, but in too many ways it resulted in essentially a continuation of Cold War thinking.  The mindset of the average American today might not be that different from what it was in 1957, at least in regards to our global relationship.  I don’t know.)

It might be argued that the civil rights movement represents a significant sign of a new epoch, but I don’t think so.  Much as I might feel ill at ease over this, I see that as a consequences of the third period rather than as its own event.  The massive social “leveling” of the Great Depression combined with the revelations of abuses in Nazi Germany eroded long-held attitudes about race and opened the door to the successful campaigns of the various equality movements that have still not ended.  Even so, “civil rights” claims and assertions have never been absent from our political landscape and seem to have been immune, as ideas, from the specifics of massive epochal change.

Anyway, I thought this might be interesting to ponder, so I’m putting it out there.  As I say, nothing perhaps new, but certainly unresolved.  Thinking about it this way, we might want to consider more constructively just what it is we want to be next.

Book Recommendation

This week at Left Bank Books, as December begins and Christmas is upon us, a number of books—Staff Picks (all of us have them, please check out the list)—are being offered at discount for on-line purchase.  For Wednesday, the 5th, my particular pick is…

China Miéville’s novel Embassytown is, to my mind, one of the best science fiction novels published in the last decade.  Not necessarily the best novel published as science fiction, but one of the best examples of what science fiction at novel length can do.

Maybe that’s a fine distinction, possibly one without a difference, but what I want to talk about now is what I mean by “science fiction” in this context and recommend a first-rate experience.

It’s an ongoing debate, and Miéville himself has weighed in on it, namely the definition of science fiction, principally in relation to fantasy.  What it comes down to for me is a question of philosophical utility.  Does the text at hand offer an examination of the “real world” consequences of a philosophical question given the constraints of a universe we recognize as that which is accessible by science?

A bit long-winded, maybe, but insofar as any fictive enterprise can be shown to deal with the consequences of questions, the defining terms in this instance—or at least the limiting terms—are “philosophical”, “real world”, and “science.”

Let me deal with this quickly, since I’ve dealt with it at length elsewhere.  By science I do not mean the rigorous application of what we know of science—if that were to be the determinant, 99% of SF would not qualify, and of that which did, a goodly portion would be enjoyable for a relatively small, self-selected audience.  What I mean by this is more on the order of an æsthetic stance vis a vis the narrative, mainly that the background setting and the foreground action conform to the forms we readily identify as “scientifically defined.”  The universe as understood by scientific enquiry.

Basically, a vision of a “real world” that we can recognize and agree fits with what we can understand as how the universe operates.

This automatically throws out most fantasy conceits.  (If you take the trouble to redefine your elves and fairies as parallel human species ala evolutionary branching or as aliens, you have retasked your imagery to perform a science fictional exploration.)

Which leaves what I consider the most interesting and salient of components, namely the philosophical aspect.

Science fiction is self-consciously philosophical, insofar as it is deeply, principally concerned with questions of how to live in a changed universe.  Not just technologically, but ethically and morally.

Which brings me to the Miéville and my rather bold claim that it is one of the best science fiction novels of the last decade.

The conceit dealt with here is the question of language and its relation both to biology and to a universe that evolves, changes, and is largely unexplored.  Miéville gives an alien race whose language is hardwired into their biology.  They do not “learn” it, they are born with it and simply mature into its proper use.

And they cannot, therefore, lie.

Enter humans.

The humans, as is our wont, work to learn to communicate with these aliens—the novel is set primarily on the alien homeworld, where humans have a single, rather naked and fragile colony/embassy— and when they succeed, they nearly destroy these aliens, who in response to the threat very nearly destroy the colony.

Throughout, there is discussion and examination of language, its uses, and how it relates to both the universe at large and the inner landscape of individuals.  The examination, which in many ways is an abstrusely philosophical one, is absolutely central to the action of the novel.

And this is what good science fiction does!

I won’t here go into further detail.  To do so risks spoilers and if you’re in least interested, you will not thank me.  (I will say that Miéville has produced one of my favorite lines in all science fiction.  No, I won’t tell you that, either.  I want you to have the fist-pump experience I did when I read it.)

I must also add that while in some ways what I have described might easily be seen as a dry, plodding work, the exact opposite is true.  Miéville is a gifted stylist and his prose rush along, carrying the reader through an adventure.

So for Christmas, for yourself, for a treat, go on-line at Left Bank Books and buy a copy.  Read it, give it away as a gift, feed the SF geek in your life, or introduce someone who has stubbornly refused to see the merit in all this “space stuff” to something of undeniable intellectual worth.  Wednesday, December 5th, it’s 20% if bought online.

Do it.  You’ll be glad you did.

I Love Jazz

We had a treat recently and I wanted to share a bit of it.

I like jazz.

No, that’s not accurate.  I love jazz.  So imagine my delight to be asked to work an event at our local jazz spot, Jazz At The Bistro, selling copies of John Pizzarelli’s new memoir, World On A String, for Left Bank Books, during his quartet’s Saturday night performance.

There is something about live jazz that just goes right into me.  A good group of masterful musicians, having a conversation on stage, it’s just magic.  Pizzarelli is one of the best guitarists in the business and frankly, I didn’t fully appreciate just how good he is till this event.

You can play a game listening to a musician of picking out influences.  Who is it this player derived inspiration from?  I heard Les Paul, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, half a dozen others, but a truly good musician takes all those and makes something new out of them, something all his or her own, and Pizzarelli is at that level.  It was an amazing show.

So I thought I’d share a bit with the video below.  Oh, and please follow the links above and buy the book and his albums.



John, by the way, is the son of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who seems to have been around forever and been on damn near everything.


I have published 529 posts on this blog.


I started the Distal Muse as part of an effort toward self-promotion, an effort that has in some ways failed.  But in the years since it was first established (I think it’s first incarnation, as part of a ridiculously complicated site, was 2003) I’ve used it to hone a skill—the short essay—and indulge whims that I frankly have little interest in trying out professionally.  After that original site was replaced by the current one, in 2006 or ’07, I started using it for all sorts of things, including putting up original art.

I look back over what is here and I’m pleasantly dismayed at the variety.  Not altogether pleasantly nonplussed by some of the content.  But, for better or worse, it’s all mine.

Some of it, I think, is not half bad.  (May not be half good, either, but that’s a matter of taste.  I think.)

Since its commencement, I’ve added a FaceBook page and, more recently, Twitter (at my agent’s urging; I’m not really sure how to use that one), to which I link my new posts.  Since one of the purposes of this whole enterprise is to ATTRACT ATTENTION TO MYSELF (to gain an audience, you understand), I thought I’d start using the archive, and link to older posts that may pique the interest of some of the good folks who now subscribe to my various digital presences.

Obviously, anyone can peruse the archive any time they want, and to my pleasant surprise, some do.  But I thought this might make it easier.

Yes, I’m trying to get more regular readers.  But I also have a small vanity which chafes at the idea that past work will fade into total obscurity.

So while I may not post as much new work here as I have been lately (an inordinate amount of which has been political—duh, I wonder why!), I hope folks will indulge in my previous babblings and may find something worthwhile therein.