Acting Out: Women’s Rights and the #MeToo Movement with Mira Sorvino.

On Saturday, March 24, I went to an event at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights called “Acting Out: Women’s Rights and the #MeToo Movement with Mira Sorvino.”

For those who’ve never been to the Center, it’s a fairly new addition to the skyline. Opened in 2014, it’s housed in an oddly shaped building perched on the edge of Centennial Park. It shares grounds and a parking deck with World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.

It’s a museum, mostly commemorating the civil rights era of the 1960s, but its mission includes paying attention and homage to later struggles by other disadvantaged people.

I went to the Center for a Lambda Legal event a year or two ago. I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Robinson, the famous gay Episcopal bishop. It was quite a night. It’s inspiring to visit a place with so much memorabilia and information relating to that necessary era in U.S. history.

This event was a panel discussion, one on one, between Mira Sorvino and Dr. Alix Chapman, a Women and Gender Studies professor at Spelman College. I decided to attend because I hadn’t been following the ongoing #MeToo story or the Harvey Weinstein story very closely, and I felt a little guilty about that. But also, Mira Sorvino has been one of my favorite actresses for a couple of decades now.

This talk was after hours, so the main part of the museum was closed. The first floor of the Center, which is below the level of the Park and the main entrance, was the only part that was open.

Attendance was free, but attendees were encouraged to sign up ahead of time, and I had done so via Facebook. When my name was crossed off the list, I was given a red wristband, which someone helped me affix to my right wrist. I think some of the wristbands may have been yellow. I don’t know what either wristband signified; there was an open bar in the lobby, but nobody asked to see my ID and no one looked to be too young to drink.

In the lead-up to the evening on the Facebook page for the talk, I saw that some attendees were disappointed that this event would be held on the same day, and therefore conflict with, the “March For Our Lives” protests against gun violence, sparked and led by survivors

The National Center For Civil and Human Rights

of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, that were taking place all over the country. Others were frustrated that Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, wouldn’t be in attendance.

As to the first concern, the organizers of this event responded that it was planned many weeks ago, long before the grassroots gun control marches were conceived, and possibly even before the Parkland shootings happened. Everyone’s at the mercy of the unforeseen sometimes; I would hope no one would fault the organizers for being unable to predict the future.

As to the second complaint, Tarana Burke had commitments elsewhere this past weekend. I have no doubt she’s in high demand in recent days, and no one has yet mastered the art of being in two places at once. It’s a pity that anyone would think having Mira Sorvino come talk was not a good enough “get.” Her bona fides on this issue, as one of the objects of Harvey Weinstein’s unwanted attentions, are as solid as anyone’s.

The talk took place in a room that looks like it’s designed for just such occasions. There was seating for around three hundred people, and from where I sat, I think there were maybe two hundred fifty. It was well attended, but not standing room only.

Dr. Chapman and Ms. Sorvino talked for about an hour and a half. You can see the whole thing here, if you’d like.

They began by discussing details of her life, both in and out of Hollywood, then moving on to discuss her connection to the Weinstein scandals and the #MeToo movement, and how she thinks they have affected her career.

She’s quite an accomplished woman. She attended Harvard in the 1980s and received a degree in Asian languages and culture, then did post-graduate studies in mainland China. She saw racism in China of a sort that might be puzzling to an outsider; for example, there was a prejudice against Africans in China that didn’t extend to African-Americans. They seemed to love all Americans, black and otherwise.

After Sorvino’s time in Asia, she returned to the United States and became an actress. She won her Oscar early in her career; according to the IMDB, she had only been acting for about four years when she made Mighty Aphrodite.

After Mighty Aphrodite, Mira made a couple of films for Miramax, which at the time was Harvey

Oscar Winner Mira Sorvino.

Weinstein’s company. She had two unpleasant casting-couch sorts of encounters with him, which have been well reported as part of the #MeToo narrative. She had a third which she has not previously made public, but which she shared with Dr. Chapman and the audience.

Ms. Sorvino skillfully generalized from the current moment to talk about all discrimination, at all times, and everywhere, and about the importance of Dr. King and the civil rights era in beginning the process to make America a better place for all of its citizens and residents.

She discussed how pervasive and taken for granted the “casting couch” and the commodification of women is in popular culture. She cited several movies of the recent past in which these attitudes are presented as so normative and ordinary that they don’t even impact on our memories of them; for example:

  • In the John Hughes movie, Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall’s character is implied to have had sex with a girl with the consent of her jock boyfriend, while she’s passed-out drunk and cannot consent.
  • In Revenge of the Nerds, one of the “nerd” college students (who were presented as the heroes of the movie) has sex with a girl while dressed in the college’s mascot costume, so she thinks he’s her boyfriend, who usually wore the costume.
  • She mentioned the scene in Animal House where a young woman, as a result of a complicated Rube Goldbergian gag, is hurled through the window of a house and into the bed of a pubescent boy. “Thank you, God!” the boy exclaims. There are many other problematic moments in that movie.

While she was talking, I thought to myself about the old expression, “wine, women, and song,” used to describe the lifestyles of people who’ve reached a certain level of wealth or leisure. The expression takes it for granted that the high-achiever is a straight male, and then women—half the human race—are utterly commodified, reduced to the same level as distilled spirits and music.

Mira Sorvino said she was blacklisted for spurning Harvey’s advances, but she didn’t know it for a long time. She hasn’t attained the career success one might expect an Oscar winner to have; most of her later career has been in low-budget, low-wattage movies that had a modest box office take or went straight to home video.

For a long time she attributed mundane reasons

The film “Smitty.”

to her career fizzle—she figured that she wasn’t pretty enough, or didn’t have enough luck, or that some other arbitrary reason was the cause. But it’s easy enough to see how it really went down by returning to the IMDB. After her salad days in soap operas and guest roles on primetime shows, there’s a long string of blockbusters and prestige pictures in the middle to late 1990s. Then after around the year 2000, she’s mostly making movies that very few of us have ever heard of, and/or that sank without a trace at the box office (if they were even released cinematically).

After she spoke, the event was thrown open to questions from the audience. I don’t think anyone asked live questions with a microphone; all were encouraged to tweet their questions to the Center’s Twitter handle using the hashtag “#ActingOutCCHR.”

Since Ronan Farrow has been so involved in the #MeToo movement, and since Mira won her Oscar for a role in a Woody Allen movie, I was a little surprised nobody asked her to talk about that. But I guess no one wanted to make her feel uncomfortable.

It looks like the #MeToo movement has legs, to coin a phrase, and that sexual harassers and rapists are finally going to be called to account, and real change will take place in the world.

But it’s still an early moment in this new paradigm. Maybe it won’t last. I’d like to think it will, but I’ve been around a while, and I’ve learned to be cynical. Time will tell.


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Transgender Women and Pregnancy.

Last month I did a speaking engagement for a classroom full of Georgia State University students, and at the beginning of my talk, I distributed index cards to the audience. I told them to write down any questions they’d prefer to ask anonymously, and I’d answer them during the Q and A period at the end.

One of the questions I got back was,

“Can a transwoman get pregnant?”

I gave what I thought at the time was a good answer: Nowadays, in an environment of greater information and acceptance, transgender people are transitioning sooner (i.e. before they’ve married and had children according to the more typical timetable of an American life). Therefore, it’s becoming more common for transwomen (and transmen) at the beginning of their transitions, before beginning surgeries or hormone replacement therapy, to make deposits of their gametes (sperm or ova or embryos) for later withdrawal, to preserve their ability to have children later in life.

This is a risky strategy, of course. The gametes may become nonviable by the time they’re needed. There could be an equipment error at the company holding them, for example, or a plain old bankruptcy or paperwork error or something like that. Furthermore, for these gametes to become babies, a womb with a willing owner may also have to be found. The prospective procreator may also have difficulty finding someone to supply the other set of 23 chromosomes. Other complications could also arise.

But these are risks many of us are willing to take, in exchange for transitioning and easing the suffering caused by gender dysphoria at an early enough age in our lives that we can express ourselves as our correct gender while we’re still young.

All of the above is what I said in response to the question. I still think it’s a good answer to the question I believed I was being asked. But, a few weeks later, I realized that I probably misunderstood. The questioner probably wanted to know whether the medical and surgical treatments available to help transgender women transition are thorough and complete enough, with regard to reproductive organs, that transwomen can afterward get pregnant and give birth.

In a word: no. Medical transitions can do amazing things for transgender women. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) provides a body chemistry very similar to that of cisgender women. That same HRT causes breasts to develop

Not usually to this extent.

to some extent. It redistributes fat tissues to make our bodies more curvy and our faces more feminine. It softens our skin and lessens body hair.

Surgery can make further changes to our public appearance, and profound changes to our pubic appearance.

But there are no surgeries, medicines, or other therapies currently available that can provide functioning reproductive organs.

Gender confirmation surgery creates a vagina and labia, but this “birth canal” is essentially a blind alley. There’s no uterus behind it; no Fallopian tubes or ovaries. With the current state of modern medicine, there’s no way for female reproduction to ever be a part of the transwoman’s experience.

I didn’t grasp the real meaning of the question because I thought it was obvious that transwomen can’t have the organs necessary to conceive fetuses and gestate them to term. The questioner apparently thought we could.

This misunderstanding was probably my fault, because earlier in my talk, I told my audience that Lili Elbe, the famous “Danish Girl” of the recent movie, had received the transplant of a uterus and ovary. I also said that she had died as a result, but my audience may have assumed that improvements in treatment and techniques since then meant that today such transplants could now be done.

Well, they’re not routine, and currently not even really possible. I’ll go into some of the reasons why here, and then identify the reasons why it’s not likely that transgender women like me will be able to bear our own children anytime in the near future. I offer the usual caveat that I am not a doctor, so if you make medical decisions based on anything I’m about to tell you in this blog post, you’re dumb.

There are two methods for people to get new body parts. Well, three. One is pretty straightforward and is practiced every day. The other two are cutting edge and a little science fiction-y.

Organ Transplants

The first method is organ transplants. Organ transplants are major surgery, requiring surgeons with special training and equipment. A donor must be found. Tissue matches must be made. Often, the recipient must bank his or her own blood ahead of time for any transfusions needed during the transplant. After the transplant, there’s a risk that the transplant will be rejected. In some cases, this means the patient will have traded a poorly working organ for no organ at all.

Like so.

The procedures became more conventional and less risky in recent years. Tissue matching is better; anti-rejection drugs are better, and there’s a thing doctors can do with bone marrow that often means there are no rejection issues at all.

Another development is that many more people are organ donors than used to be; in a growing number of states, licensed drivers are organ donors by default, instead of being required to opt in to the system. If you need a liver, or a heart, or sometimes lungs, your chances are better than they used to be that you can get one before your “original equipment” fails and you die.

But the thing about that, when talking about reproductive organs, is that you’ll die without a liver, or a heart, or lungs. Transplants are an option of last resort when there’s no doubt that the original organs have failed. There’s always some risk from major surgery like a transplant, and from the complications of having someone else’s body parts operating inside one’s body. Organ transplants are a thing only because the risk of the surgery is overshadowed by the certainty that some patients will die without the needed organs.

Such is not the case with reproductive organs. Transwomen will not die if we don’t have ovaries or uteruses. Transmen will not die if they don’t have testes. Transplanting organs not strictly necessary for continued living is an ethical gray area.

But medicine improves all the time, and some cisgender women are beginning to receive uterus transplants in experimental surgeries. At least one woman in Sweden has carried a baby to term and given birth with her mother’s uterus, transplanted into her own body.

There’s a logic to that. Not only did her mother no longer need her uterus; not only are they close enough relatives to make a successful transplant more likely; but by historical fact, the daughter received a uterus with a proven track record. She gave birth using the same uterus she herself began life inside. It’s like if M.C. Escher had been an obstetrician.

So, transwomen can just get transplanted uteruses from their own mothers and then give birth, right? Well, no. Hang on; it’s not quite that simple. For a transgender woman, doctors would have to make room for the uterus and find a way to attach it to nerves and a blood supply,

This is what it is.

in an abdomen that wasn’t designed for it. And besides that, there’s still the matter of the embryo.

A cisgender woman without a functioning uterus may still have functioning ovaries. It’s routine, if expensive, to fertilize eggs in vitro and then implant them into a uterus to come to term; but a transgender woman doesn’t have her own ovaries or eggs. Maybe ovaries will also be transplanted one day along with uteruses, but that’s a more complicated surgery, and it would probably have a lower success rate.

And even so, another thing to consider is that an ovary begins its life with all the ova it will ever have. So even if a transwoman received a transplanted ovary and became pregnant with an ovum from it, the child that results from the pregnancy will biologically be someone else’s. If the point of the undertaking was for the transwoman to have her own biological children, then she still won’t have done that.

Of course, she might use ova from the transplanted ovary fertilized with some of her own banked sperm, but if the ovary came from a close relative, the embryo would, genetically, be a product of incest—a dicey proposition that could lead to birth defects, to say nothing of the social and legal taboos.

If the transwoman just wants to experience pregnancy, and it’s less important that the fetus has a genetic relationship to her, that may be possible with a uterine transplant, and good on her for that. But the birth itself would still have to be via Caesarean section. The cervix and vagina of a cisgender woman have complex muscular structures that would be absent from the vagina of a transwoman; a baby could not pass through it without ruining it, and anyway, the transgender mother would not be able to experience labor.

It would be no walk in the park for the fetus, either. The placenta wouldn’t have a natural place to attach, and the hormonal environment of the mother, even on HRT, might not be conducive to supporting the various stages of a pregnancy. There are many factors that wouldn’t even be knowable until the first time someone tried to cause a pregnancy in a transgender woman, and I think it would be unethical to use a potential human life as a lab experiment that way.

Artificially Grown Organs

Transplants are cutting-edge possibilities (no pun intended) today for transpeople who want to reproduce. Another possibility, currently only speculative, is that doctors could grow new organs for transgender women (and men) which could then be implanted.

This is a chicken’s egg. It came first.

This is a science that’s very much still in its infancy (again, no pun intended). Artificial bladders have been made for people. It’s very difficult to do even this, and the bladder is one of the simplest organs; it’s basically just a bag. More complicated organs like ovaries and Fallopian tubes will be several more years down the road. The same is also true for uteruses, which, again, are basically just bags.

Could female reproductive organs be grown from cells with an XY genome, or vice versa? I have no idea. So that would be an additional stumbling block.

And once all that’s worked out, many of the issues with transplanted uteruses would still remain. This possibility for pregnancy remains very far in the future.

Grown ovaries would allow our bodies to make their own estrogen and other female hormones. So there is that. I’d be up for that.

Non-biological Wombs

Neonatal care is getting so good that premature babies can survive after being delivered earlier and earlier before full term. The current record is 21 weeks.

At the same time, embryos can be implanted several days after fertilization, if necessary, although the longer the wait, the more likely the pregnancy to fail.

You can see where this is going: eventually babies will be able to skip a step, and go from fertilization to birth entirely in a lab somewhere, and never spend any time inside their mothers at all.

Obviously, if this is ever possible—in vitro gestation—anyone will be able to do it, not just transgender people.

While intriguing, I think all of these not-yet-available and “heroic” methods of bringing pregnancy to the transgender female realm are rather pointless, and potentially dangerous besides.

The desire to procreate is Darwinian.

I do understand the desire to procreate. It’s Darwinian, and Darwinian impulses tend to be the strongest. And in a world that often discriminates against an LGBT person’s right to adopt, having one’s own biological children is often the only avenue to becoming a parent.

That doesn’t mean we have to ourselves get pregnant, and the thinking that it’s somehow necessary to one’s womanhood to undergo a pregnancy is an essentialist fallacy, similar to transphobes’ claims that we have to have certain chromosomes or genitals to be considered “really” female. I reject it.

Many, many cisgender women, today, in the past, and in the future, have lived their whole lives without ever getting pregnant. It doesn’t in any way take away from their female-ness. If they have children via other means, means we ourselves could also take advantage of, they’re just as fit mothers, just as we would be.


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Len Foote Hike Inn.

I’ve always liked hiking, and I’ve gone on rambles through the woods off and on my whole life. As a teenager I was in Scouting (scouting? I was a scout (a Scout?)). Living in Athens as a college student, I went on expeditions with the organization called GORP (Georgia Outdoor Recreation Program). During my time in the Navy, I climbed Mt. Fuji, and later hiked all over the Koolau mountain range on Oahu. Once I’d returned to Georgia, I got away into the woods often during the first decade of this century.

I love seeing nature in all its splendor, and testing myself against its rigors.

In the past several years I haven’t done much hiking at all, unless you count occasional strolls to the summit of Stone Mountain, which I do not.

I mean to change this lack in the years to come. I’m taking metaphorical steps toward getting ready for the literal steps of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

When I learned about an educational event at the Len Foote Hike Inn on just that subject (“AT Kick-Off Program Hike Inn Style”), I decided to sign up.

The Len Foote Hike Inn, as the name implies, is a hotel that is only accessible on foot. It’s on Amicalola Mountain, higher than the famous Amicalola Falls. A five-mile trail beginning at the top of the falls and winding through dense temperate forest, gaining around 500 feet of altitude, is pretty much the only way to get there. You have to hike in to the Hike Inn.

Each room has twin bunk beds, and linens are provided. Toilet and shower facilities are in a separate bathhouse. The Inn also feeds dinner and breakfast to its guests, served family style in a third building.

Given all those amenities, I could have gone on this adventure with just a light day pack, but since I’m training for longer treks, I used my big expedition pack, designed for weeks or months of backpacking, and deliberately overstuffed it with many more clothes and equipment than I needed.

I left Decatur shortly before noon on Monday, March 5th, and arrived at Amicalola Falls State Park by two p.m. At the visitors center, I received a parking hang tag and was directed to the highest and most remote parking lot.

I’d assumed I’d lose cell service somewhere on the outskirts of Dawsonville, the

The view to the east.

nearest town to the park. In fact, even here at the trailhead my iPhone still had one or two bars, depending on which direction I turned. I was a little disappointed by this encroachment of the twenty-first century, but not so much that I left my phone behind. I stuffed it into a pocket of my cargo pants, even though I knew talking on phones is illegal at the Inn.

I hit the trail at 2:09 p.m. The hike to the Inn was pleasant, and not strenuous. Since the trail gains altitude, it’s more uphill than downhill, but these gains are stretched out enough that most moderately fit people will be able to handle them.

The trail was marked by rectangular blazes of lime-green paint. I wish there had been a little more of them; they were just far enough apart that several times during my walk I was unable to see the next one, and had a moment of panic before it finally came into view.

The trail wasn’t very scenic at this time of year. It’s below the tree line, and the forest is thick enough that there are no sweeping vistas of the mountain range falling away in the distance, and March 5 is early enough in the year that there were no flowers and very little green except for ferns and ivy. So the walk itself was the main attraction.

I listened to podcasts on my phone the whole way.

According to signs at the trailhead, the hike takes three hours on average. I made it in two without hurrying, but I do keep a steady pace and I don’t like to stop to rest. On the way I passed two women hiking together when they stopped to rest before one of the more strenuous uphill sections.

At the lobby, I was checked in by a tall young woman named Diane. She gave me my room key and a cotton tote bag containing the linens for my bed and a towel and washcloth.

The lower bunk. There was a ladder to the top bunk, if that’s your thing.

My room was #1, right off the lobby. I went there, dropped my pack, and made my bed. Like all the rooms, it was a rustic, narrow cell containing twin bunk beds, a narrow desk, several wooden wall pegs, and a mirror. It wouldn’t win any awards for luxury, but if I’d been coming here after weeks or months on the Appalachian Trail, as many do, I might feel like I was at a four-star resort.

At 5 p.m. I joined some of my fellow guests in the lobby to embark on a tour of the Inn and its grounds. The two women I’d passed on the way were just arriving. They checked in quickly and joined the tour. We were a mixed bag: a middle-aged couple and their brother/brother-in-law; a mother and her teenage daughter; some retirees; a young man who would soon embark on a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail; a wiry retiree who looked like a marathoner as well as a hiker. Near as I could tell, all of us were white.

The tour was conducted by Richard Judy, a Len Foote Hike Inn board member.

I can sum up the tour with a list of names:

Len Foote. The Hike Inn’s namesake was a famous naturalist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was rarely seen without a camera in his hand, and he was part of the inspiration for the comic-strip character Mark Trail. That’s why the inn is named after him; I’m pretty sure it’s a coincidence that his name is also “Foote.”

All Points North. This nonprofit provided the Inn’s solar array, which currently provides seventy percent of the Inn’s power. There’s hope that improvements in battery technology over the next few years will allow the Inn to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels even further.

I didn’t see any power lines, so I don’t know how that last thirty percent of the power is delivered to the mountaintop.

Garland Reynolds. This Atlanta-area architect designed the Inn close to twenty years ago (the vicennial anniversary is around Hallowe’en of this year). His concept was that the Inn should just appear suddenly out of the woods. This was my experience upon arrival; I was looking at the trail ahead of me, and then without warning I was looking at the front porch of the Inn.

The Hike Inn was one of the earliest structures to receive Gold LEED certification for the green-ness of its construction. It’s built on pilings instead of a foundation, as grading the ground and pouring a foundation would have disrupted the mountaintop too severely.

Red Wigglers. These are the worms that process the compost at the Inn. No lie, the “Cadillac of Worms” are a real thing! I had no idea!

Plenty of room for writing or reading!

Dahlonega. Looking east off the mountain, near sunset, we could see an unmistakable bright glint. This was coming from the gold-plated roof of Price Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Georgia.

I was disappointed to note that, while discussing the renewable energy and the other eco-features of the Inn, Mr. Judy was somewhat equivocal on the subject of climate change. I have to wonder if there’s a policy imposed by the state, or if certain funding might be in jeopardy, if he were to acknowledge the scientific certainty that anthropogenic global warming is happening, and is a problem. I hope not, but I can’t think of any other reason why he would have been so ambiguous on the matter.

The tour concluded in the dining hall, which was fine, because it was almost six o’clock and time for supper anyway.

Supper was delicious. There were about twenty of us tucking in, the roster from the tour and a few others, and we sat around wooden tables family style, guests and volunteers alike. The meal was brought out in large pots or on earthenware platters. The entrée was pork loin for everyone but the vegetarians; we were given steaming bowls of black beans that were slippery (not slimy) with some sort of spicy oil.

There were also green beans, a green salad (I put ranch dressing on mine), some sort of dirty rice, and baskets of dinner rolls, served warm enough to melt the pats of butter I tucked into them.

Dessert was a cake called “Tunnel of Fudge.” There were extra slices. I split a second slice with the man sitting next to me.

The Inn encourages a “clean plate” practice among its diners: take all we want, but eat everything that lands on our plates. I had no difficulty complying.

As the tables were being cleared, Diane appeared with a laptop and projector. She stood next to the unlit wood stove in the center of the room and began to set up for the presentation.

There were to be three presenters: Diane, Richard, and a woman named Gail; their trail names were “Firefly,” “Peregrine,” and “Georgia Peach,” respectively. They thru-hiked the trail in three different decades: southbound in 1973, northbound in 2016, and northbound in 1991, again respectively.

The talk was fascinating (to me), but probably wouldn’t be to anyone who isn’t interested in hiking

The dining room was very homey.

the Appalachian Trail one day, so I won’t discuss it here. I may talk about it in a future post.

After the presentation, the evening broke up pretty much instantaneously. I wanted to relax for a while in the Sunrise Room, a cozy building on the east side of the compound stocked with comfortable seats and a pile of board games. I hoped to interest some of my fellow hikers in a game of Ticket To Ride or Setters of Catan.

But, I set a requirement for myself: I write several hundred words every day, and I hadn’t written anything today yet. So I repaired to my room to accomplish this task first.

The room was cold when I returned to it, but it had a heating system. A dial on the wall turned from “Off” to “Lo” to “Hi” heat. I turned it to “Hi,” but I didn’t have a guess where the heat would be coming from.

It turned out it was coming from the ceiling. A large white rectangle, about the dimensions of an old fluorescent light fixture like one used to see in office buildings, projected a couple inches down from the ceiling, and it immediately began to get hot after I turned the dial. Solar powered? Exothermic reactions from the compost pile? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’d brought along my iPad and a folding keyboard. This was my first field test of this system (I usually write on my MacBook at home), and it went pretty well. I typed up and fleshed out some of my notes about the day, and in no time at all I’d pounded out over seven hundred words.

Shutting down my tablet, I grabbed a book and headed back down to the Sunrise Room. Nobody was there. It was only 9:30. I sat with my book for a few minutes, but soon realized just how tired I was; I’d had a very long day by now. I’d have been useless at Ticket To Ride or Settlers’, even if I’d found someone to play them with me.

I gave up and went to the bathhouse to perform my nightly ablutions (get to work, Red Wigglers!), then returned to Room #1 and called it a night.

Whatever that rectangle in the ceiling was, it put out so much heat that I woke up sweating at four in the morning

No foundation: the Inn rests upon these pilings.

and had to turn it down.

I rose again at about seven, in plenty of time to pack, get dressed, and head back down to the dining hall for breakfast at eight. Like supper the night before, it was hearty and delicious. Afterward, I had a nice chat with some of the folks at my table.

Checkout was no later than ten a.m. I was enjoying the talk, but didn’t want to push the deadline, and besides, I wanted to get back home by a decent hour. When I returned to the front desk with my key, I bought a pair of Len Foote Hike Inn socks for my partner, a green Len Foote Hike Inn bandana for myself, and a copy of Richard Judy’s novel, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story (all proceeds go to benefit the Appalachian Trail Museum).

It rained the whole way back to the trailhead. I had on a Gore-Tex raincoat, but I was still pretty miserable. I was glad to get back into my warm car.


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Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet 2018.

I’ve always prided myself on the size of my vocabulary. It’s larger than that of most people I know. And I’m a good speller; I spell words better than most people I know. I’m probably not world-class, but I’m definitely competitive.

Ever since I learned about the annual Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet (spelling bee), I’ve competed every year I’ve been able to. I’ve only missed one or two over the past decade.

I’ve never won. I’ve been a runner-up several times, and that’s surely gratifying, but winning the top spot is on my bucket list. It will happen one day.

The Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet is held on the third Saturday of every February at Manuel’s Tavern. This year was the 48th competition.

Originally, the Meet was held in Midtown at the now-demolished Stein Club. In honor of the original hosting location, the winner each year is presented with a beer stein engraved with their name and one of the words they spelled correctly. When my good friend/arch-nemesis Ed won the Meet several years ago, he requested the word “octothorpe,” which was one of the words that carried him to victory.

My partner and I arrived at Manny’s at around six this past Saturday. Her parents had already scored us a table, not far from where the Committee had set up its reference material and audio equipment, and next door to the table claimed by Ed and some of his other friends.

The Bee wouldn’t start for another hour, so we ordered something to eat. I limited myself to a Greek salad; it wouldn’t do to grow logy under the influence of a veggie burger and steak fries. I had to stay sharp!

Most people are familiar with the single-elimination format of the Scripps-Howard scholastic spelling bees. The Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet is different from that. Necessarily so, as the popularity of the event generates hundreds of competitors each year, so the traditional bee format would last long into the night. This battle is waged with pencil and paper.

For Round One, twenty words are read out by two different individuals, preferably one man and one woman, and a definition is also given. Spellers write down their best guesses for each word. These twenty words are usually “common words that are often misspelled.” Furthermore, the first word is always one that has recently been in the news. In 2009, the first word in Round One was “shovel-ready.” In 2017, the first word was “emoluments.”

After all twenty words are read, their proper spellings are given. The (roughly) twenty people who spelled the most words correctly are advanced to Round Two. This will always include everyone who spelled all twenty words correctly, and everyone who spelled nineteen words correctly. Usually, it also includes everyone who only spelled eighteen words correctly. Some years, when the first round has been especially challenging, they have to go as deep as those who only spelled seventeen words correctly to get twenty people for advancement.

Here are this year’s Round One words. Where a word is struck through, it means I misspelled it. The correct spelling will be to the right in parentheses. Also, the correctly spelled version of each word is a link to its definition.

Round One

  1. nomophobia
  2. calzone
  3. ottoman
  4. whittle
  5. quaff
  6. sassafras
  7. vellum
  8. catalyst
  9. façade
  10. chinion (chignon)
  11. filibuster
  12. tsk
  13. colonnade
  14. fugue
  15. gamut
  16. hunky-dory
  17. morass
  18. parley (parlay)
  19. trough
  20. sentient

This was a tough first round for me; I usually don’t miss any words this early.

I almost misspelled the first word as “gnomophobia,” because I have a tendency to overthink everything. Fortunately, I decided that since it’s a neologism, it’s unlikely to have a complicated spelling, and I got it right.

Several people in the room misspelled “sassafras” by putting a fifth “s” at the end. Of course I didn’t make this mistake, because I know that “frass” is caterpillar shit, and that “sassafras” has nothing to do with caterpillar shit.

I couldn’t have misspelled “vellum,” of course, because I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. Consult your Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook.

“Colonnade,” in addition to being “a series of columns set at regular intervals and usually supporting the base of a roof structure,” is the name of an indefinably creepy “meat and three” restaurant over on Cheshire Bridge Road, tucked in among the lamp stores and jack shacks. Of course I couldn’t misspell that word.

“Chignon” I’d simply never encountered before, and I’m generally not good at my French roots, so there was that.

I wrote “parlay” correctly at first, then crossed it out and replaced it with the incorrect spelling. In my defense, “parley” is also a word.

Fortunately, this year eighteen correct spellings was enough to advance to Round Two. Ed also missed two words, but they were a different two from mine.

Round Two consisted, as always, of fifteen words that are much more difficult than the words in the first round. Here they are:

Round Two

  1. laurakeet (lorikeet)
  2. knowosphere (noosphere)
  3. giclee
  4. asterysm (asterism)
  5. farfalli (farfalle)
  6. weir
  7. ambit
  8. catalpa
  9. dactylic
  10. porcini
  11. centripetal
  12. recherché
  13. seine
  14. farded
  15. swarf

I got four wrong out of these fifteen. I’m angry at myself for not knowing “noosphere,” because the definition revealed its connection to the word “nootropic,” which is a word I’ve known ever since seeing the movie Lawnmower Man.

I guess “lorikeet” isn’t a very difficult word, objectively speaking. But many words are difficult if you don’t know them.

Misspelling “asterism” was due to drawing a false analogy in my head between that word and such words as “paroxysm” and “aneurysm.” “Asterism” looked more science-y with “-ysm” on the end.

I was angry at the Italian language for missing “farfalle.” Who puts an “e” on the end of a type of pasta, instead of an “i”? That’s just basic pasta-ing!

“Catalpa” was a lucky guess, as was “swarf,” and as was “dactylic,” because I almost doubled the “l.”

The rest of the words I already knew how to spell, including “farded,” which I learned about last year via an emailed language newsletter that I read. The adolescent mirth that was had with “farded” (pronounced just like you’d assume) in the room and at our table was one of the highlights of the evening. Everyone became twelve years old again.

Fifteen competitors were advanced to the third round. Advancement is based on the total number of words spelled correctly in the two rounds. So if, after two rounds, you’ve spelled all thirty-five words correctly, you’re sure to be advanced. They usually accept everyone who has spelled as few as thirty words correctly.

I hoped they’d go deeper this year, because I had only spelled twenty-nine words correctly. But they did not. I usually make it to the third round, but this year I failed. My only consolation was that Ed also failed. Which, don’t get me wrong, was still pretty sweet.

So, thus eliminated, I continued to play along, for funsies. Normally ten or more people are advanced to the third round. For some reason, this year only nine were taken. The next round consisted of ten very difficult words:

Round Three

  1. analsegnosia (anosognosia)
  2. menheer (menhir)
  3. quandam (quondam)
  4. beautieau (buteo)
  5. madeleisais (matelassé)
  6. leparine (leporine)
  7. mahoud (mahout)
  8. caricol (caracole)
  9. bidingbop (bibimbap)
  10. heirophant (hierophant)

I’ll note that several of these words are so obscure that Microsoft Word underlined even the correct spellings with the squiggly red line indicating that it thinks they’re misspelled. But they can all be found in Merriam-Webster’s online database. I really didn’t know any of these words except for “hierophant,” and I even misspelled that, because I forgot to apply the classic rule, “i before e.” Not that it mattered (to me) at this point.

Six contestants survived to do battle in the fourth round of five words:

Round Four

  1. sophrosony (sophrosyne)
  2. kaleidiate (chalybeate)
  3. deleum (bdellium)
  4. psychgaber (zeitgeber)
  5. physagh (taoiseach)

Difficult as these words were (and I didn’t spell any of them correctly), they’re slightly easier than the fourth-round words in most years. As you can probably guess by my attempt to spell “chalybeate,” I heard it wrong; I wouldn’t have spelled it correctly in any case, but I should have been able to hear the difference between a “d” and a “b.” I think there were several words like that this year: they weren’t pronounced as clearly as I think they should have been. I recognize that sounds like sour grapes, and could well be that.

My absurdly bad attempt to spell “zeitgeber” reminds me again that, despite two years of high school German, I am unable to recognize German-derived words when I hear them, and I should be ashamed.

As soon as I heard the definition of “taoiseach” (the Irish word for that nation’s prime minister), I knew I would utterly fail to spell it even close to correctly. I’m convinced that Irish “spelling” is actually a practical joke on the rest of the world.

This year’s winner was Julie Tuttle, who spelled a total of 40 words correctly. This was her second victory; she first took top prize in 2015. If she ever wins a third time, she will be forcibly retired, but invited to join the Committee, and my competition will number one fewer.

Tied for second place were Alan Weakley (<vaudeville>VERY weakly!</vaudeville>) and Fred Roberts. Alan won first place back in 2011. This was Fred’s first appearance on the podium.

So that’s it for this year. I guess I need to hit the books and get ready for next year. There will always be a next year.


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Atlanta’s Surviving Old Growth Forests.

Last month, I went to Emory University’s White Hall to hear a talk by Joan Maloof. She is a forest ecologist and a professor emerita at Salisbury University in Maryland. She also founded the Old-Growth Forest Network, which proposes to create a nationwide network of old-growth forests that would remain forever unlogged and uncleared, but which would be open for the public to visit.

Needless to say, the talk was about trees. Specifically, trees and old-growth forests in Atlanta. It was presented by EcoAddendum, a nonprofit with this mission statement:

Eco-A’s mission is to raise awareness about Georgia’s rich natural environment, and through education, to reconnect people with the natural world.
Our programs seek to restore health and well-being to people and communities as well as the trees, plants and native ecosystems of Atlanta and the Southeast.

I can’t find any mention of a Georgia connection in any online biographies of Maloof, but she spoke about Atlanta like a local. Perhaps she moved here after retiring from Salisbury University, or she’s originally from here.

This post is distilled from my memory of the event and from my live-tweets from White Hall, where the event was held. Any errors or meaning-changing omissions are entirely my fault.

I estimated White Hall holds 300-400 people, and the place was completely packed. I was lucky to find a seat, and it was all the way in the back row.

Maloof is passionate about her subject, and her enthusiasm and optimism made her talk a real pleasure to listen to. She also had many slides, which presented charts, maps, photographs, and other data. I’m sorry I can’t reproduce those here.

There are fewer trees in the United States than there used to be, of course. Our nation has less than one percent of its virgin, never-cut forest left. But many forests have only been cut once, and they are rebounding. This rebound can be fostered and cultivated. Of the US’s 3,140 counties, 2,370 can support forest growth.

Dr. Joan Maloof. From the author’s website.

Forests once covered forty-six percent of all land. That number today is down to thirty percent. That’s a recovery from early in the twentieth century.

Atlanta has more urban tree canopy than any other major U.S. city. This fact sounds surprising to many people, because Atlanta has fewer parks than many cities of comparable size. Most of Atlanta’s trees are not in parks, however.

Atlanta was founded much more recently than most major East Coast cities; what is today metropolitan Atlanta was an old growth forest as recently as 1820. Most big cities on the Eastern Seaboard were settled much earlier, and were built out quickly inland from the ports that were their raison d’etre.

Places in metropolitan Atlanta that weren’t turned into farms or that got skipped in suburban expansion patterns contain living remainders of the original old-growth forest.

Hillsides (Atlanta is very hilly) and areas that flood often don’t generally get developed, but trees in such terrain are still there.

Some trees look damaged and maybe even are, so they don’t get harvested for lumber. Left to themselves, they often heal from or adapt to the damage, and they can persist to live to be very old.

Houses that were built before the invention of air conditioning often were built in the shade of large old trees to help keep them cool.

Thanks to all of these factors, Atlanta has both preserved much of its tree canopy and saved many remaining trees from the original old-growth forests from before the European arrival.

Old-growth forests have qualities and confer benefits not shared by other types of forests.

They draw more carbon out of the atmosphere than young forests. They also remove toxins, like ozone.

Biodiversity is much greater in old-growth forests:

Old forests have a greater variety of frog and salamander species.

Vegetation in the understory is more diverse in old-growth forests. A second-growth forest that has been cut down and grows back never again reaches a similar level of biodiversity.

Many species of orchid partner with fungi that are only found on old-growth trees.

Speaking of fungi, Dr. Maloof said that the trees in old-growth forests are covered and connected by a network of different kinds of fungus that allow for communication of sorts among the trees. Minerals and other needed compounds can be transferred from one tree that has an abundance to another tree that has a lack. Dr. Maloof called this phenomenon the “wood-wide web.”

Some of the old-growth remnants in the Atlanta metropolitan area include Fernbank Forest, Deepdene Park, Herbert Green Park, Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, and the Lullwater Conservation Garden, among many others.

In the lobby outside the auditorium, Dr. Maloof was selling and signing her latest book, Natures Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests. I picked up a copy before I left the event. It’s a slim volume, under 200 pages. I’ll review it here when I read it.

After Dr. Maloof’s talk was another, an “Atlanta Forest Overview” by Kathryn Kolb, the director of EcoAddendum. The evening concluded with a discussion moderated by Maria Saporta that included academics, members of NGOs, and one of Atlanta’s “resilience officers” speaking about the local green space and efforts to husband and extend it. I was unable to take notes for that portion of the evening, so I can’t provide a recap here.

I was made aware of this event by the Atlanta Science Tavern. Thanks to them!

 


The Transgender Outing On Survivor

Two weeks ago on Survivor, one of the contestants, Zeke Smith, was forcibly outed as transgender by another contestant. It made the news, or I wouldn’t have heard about it. Outing people without their consent is a majorly uncool thing to do, and the incident prompted me to watch my first episode of Survivor in at least a decade.

Several initial thoughts come to my mind before I address the matter of the outing. I’ve itemized them.

  1. How is Survivor still a thing? Does it have any relevance today? Do people actually watch it? I see from Wikipedia that it still draws decent ratings, although they’re miniscule compared to those of the first few seasons. I don’t know that I know anyone who still watches the show, but obviously it’s still profitable. I watched Survivor faithfully in its early seasons. The season I remember best is the second one, set in Australia. I liked the aw-shucks charm of boy-next-door Texan Colby Donaldson, and had a major crush on the contestant who, sadly, later became a talking head on The View and revealed herself to be a right-wing buffoon.
    After several more seasons, the show had become so repetitive, with the tropical island watersports challenges, the predictable deal making and backstabbing, that I’d had enough. By the middle of the Aughts, I no longer watched the show. The last season I watched was the season nicknamed “Survivor: Race War,” in which contestants were sorted into tribes of white people, black people, Latinos, and Asians. For reals. Despite all the exotic locales the show has visited, it has struggled to find moral high ground.
    Apparently Jeff Varner, the wrongdoer in this recent incident, had also been a contestant in the Australia season that I remember so fondly. I have no recollection of him.

    Zeke Smith, the aggrieved party.

  1. This season is titled Survivor: Game Changers, and all the contestants have competed before. Is every season now an “all-stars” kind of thing? After 34 iterations, has the show run out of new people who are interested in competing on the show? And speaking of which:
  2. Thirty-four seasons? How ridiculous is that? Those are numbers you associate with Meet The Press or 60 Minutes, not a show that has only existed during this millennium. Does Jeff Probst aspire to do nothing else? Does he like spending two months of every year primitive camping on tropical islands that much?

I’ll say one thing for the show: it has stuck with what must be a winning formula. Even the dialogue is unchanged. Jeff Probst still beckons the tribes in to the challenge areas with “come on in, guys,” with exactly the same wording and inflection he’s always used.

The reward challenge, with some minor treat symbolizing the comforts of civilization at stake (in this episode, it was ten pizzas accompanied by cold soda), is the same as it’s always been. The immunity challenge, with immunity from tribal council at stake, also has not changed.

What also hasn’t changed is that both challenges were done and dusted before the episode was half over. The rest of the episode’s running time was consumed by the losing tribe’s members scheming, wheeling and dealing about the upcoming vote, and by the tribal council itself.

The contestants all had moments alone with several of their tribemates, including Zeke, and also some time alone with the camera. I might have followed everyone’s strategy talk better if I had been watching this season all along, but there’s really not a lot of variation in these things. There’s always a group of contestants who talk about loyalty and honesty; there are others who say all’s fair in “the game,” and that they’re “not here to make friends.” Still others act as if they’re above the politics and claim they just want to go along to get along.

Jeff Varner, the villain.

And then there’s always one guy—it was legendarily Machiavellian Richard Hatch in the inaugural season of the show—who juggles his team’s feelings like bean bags, promising everything to everyone while clearly only caring for himself.

This character was personified by Jeff Varner in this episode. Varner discussed his plans with the camera like Iago to his audience in Othello. He said he liked Zeke, but that he thought he knew something about Zeke, some secret that Zeke hadn’t told anyone, and that while he didn’t want to have to use this secret against Zeke, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it looked like he (Varner) would be on the short end of the torch at tribal council.

In hindsight it’s obvious what he meant. Not obvious is how what Varner was hinting he’d be divulging could in any way save him from being voted off the island. Was he thinking his teammates would be so disgusted by the presence of a trans person in their midst that ejecting Zeke would override any other concerns? We can only guess.

Before the vote, Varner continued to play the standard villain role. He told several of them that Zeke and another player, Ozzie (a veteran of the show starting with the Survivor: Race War season) were plotting against them, and they appeared to believe it. Again, it’s astounding that the show can still find people this naïve to be contestants. Even I, dropping in on this one episode, could easily see Varner wasn’t to be trusted. And apparently everyone on the show this season had competed before, so it’s a fool-me-twice situation for anyone who gets bamboozled by another player.

At the tribal council, Varner acknowledged that he would likely be voted out, but still tried to make the case for voting out Ozzie instead. Standard desperation ploy.

But then his argument took an abrupt turn. He told Jeff Probst:

“There’s deception here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.”

He paused then, and Probst asked him to continue, which he did.

Varner turned to Zeke, and without further ado, asked bluntly, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

I knew that outing was going to happen—it’s the only reason I was watching in the first place. And yet, I still found the outing so shocking I had to pause the episode and take a moment before continuing.

Transgender men, in general, enjoy a privilege that transgender women, in general, do not. That is, trans men are more likely to look cisnormative, which means they get to choose whether or not to live their lives in “stealth” mode. It’s up to them to disclose their transgender status, and if they keep it to themselves, no one’s the wiser.

I don’t know how Varner figured out that Zeke was trans; as a gay man himself, maybe Varner has met more transgender people in his life than people outside our community, and so recognizes subtle clues. That doesn’t make what he did in any way okay. He should know himself what a horrible act of psychological violence it is to out another person. Even worse, the phrasing of his question made it seem Zeke had some obligation to disclose his transgender status to the rest of his tribe.

Let’s be clear about this: Survivor is a game show. It requires a much larger commitment than The Price Is Right or Jeopardy!, but it’s still just a game show. While there are a small number of situations in which a transgender person could reasonably be expected to reveal their transgender status to others, none of those situations are likely to arise in the course of competing on a game show.

There are zero situations in which it’s reasonable for another person to out a person as transgender without that person’s consent.

Zeke looked shocked when Varner outed him, and he didn’t answer or respond in any other way.

To the great credit of the rest of the tribe, they immediately rose up against Varner.

“That’s personal!” one dark-haired woman said. “That is so wrong of you to bring that up!” the older Asian man shouted.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Ozzy told Varner.

To a person, the tribe rejected Varner’s premise that Zeke was in any way “deceiving” people, or had done anything wrong. To a person, they were livid.

Even Jeff Probst, who typically adopts a pose of objectivity at the tribal councils, essentially told Varner he was being a creep. It really was a sight to behold.

In the face of this backlash, Varner folded like a broken umbrella, expressed regret, wept, and begged Zeke to forgive him. He did seem sincerely contrite. I can say that much for him. But I wonder if he would have backpedaled if the tribe hadn’t been so quick to condemn him.

Prompted by Jeff Probst, Zeke turned this clusterfuck into a teachable moment about living one’s truth; he said that he had only ever wanted to be “Zeke the Survivor contestant,” not “Zeke the trans Survivor contestant.” Now that it was out, he shrugged, and said he hoped living his life “out” from this moment on, before the millions of viewers of the show, could help bring solace and courage to some kid watching who’s contemplating their own transition.

He was a class act, in other words.

Varner then left the show in a voice vote, which I’ve never seen happen on the show before. In his exit confessional during the closing credits, he told the camera “No one should ever do what I did,” then buried his head in his hands.


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Bernie Wrightson, RIP.

Legendary comic book artist Bernie Wrightson (sometimes spelled Berni Wrightson) died of brain cancer over the weekend. He was 68.

Today the name most associated with the DC Comics character, Swamp Thing, is Alan Moore. He revamped and revitalized the old monster type, the “swamp monster,” in the Swamp Thing comic book in the late 1980s. This new version of the book led to the creation of other characters like John Constantine and Lucifer, and eventually resulted in DC’s horror/dark fantasy imprint, Vertigo.

However, Alan Moore didn’t create the Swamp Thing. The character got his start at the hands of writer Len Wein, with art by Wrightson, in the early 1970s.

Bernie Wrightson was an amazing artist. All the more so, since he was mainly self-taught. It’s not easy to do horror in comics, and this was especially true back then. The limitations of cheap newsprint paper and a limited color palette meant that it was much harder to get the realistic detail you’d want for convincing gore and viscera.

Wrightson made it look easy. Swamp Thing was set in the Louisiana bayous. The title character was Alec Holland, an unfortunate scientist who was beaten, thrown into the swamp, and left for dead by mobsters (after they’d also killed his wife). Because reasons, Alec survived, but changed into a powerful but horrifying creature, more plant than animal—the description usually found in the pages of each issue of the book was “a moss-encrusted mockery of a man.”

Every panel oozed with atmosphere. You could practically smell the rot; hear the gases bubbling up out of the peat moss. Wrightson’s use of shadows imbued the series with mood and texture, and he could scare the shit out of me even in scenes where nothing particularly scary was going on.

The comic’s word balloons, which Wrightson also drew, were unlike any I’d seen in a comic book before; they were yellow or green, and appeared to be dripping with muck and slime. You could practically smell it. His art was amazing. The Alan Moore era was great, but the Wein/Wrightson original flavor was also uniquely terrific.

After Swamp Thing, Bernie Wrightson is probably best known for his character, Captain Sternn. Captain Sternn appeared in several issues of the comics magazine Heavy Metal, and he also appeared in a segment of the animated Heavy Metal movie from 1981.

Here’s a page spread from an adaptation of the Frankenstein story that Wrightson did. This shows you what his work looked like, and how amazing it was. He did all this with a pencil!

If you look at Wrightson’s credits over time, there’s something you may notice. In the oldest Swamp Thing comics I’ve acquired, he was credited as “Berni Wrightson,” with only the one “e” in his first name. This is how he’s credited throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, sometime in the 1990s, I began to see his name spelled more conventionally, as “Bernie Wrightson.”

I had the great fortune to meet Bernie when he came to Dragon*Con one year. I didn’t remember the year, but when I heard the news of his death I looked it up: 1995. It seems insane that it could have been that long ago, but I know it must have.

At the Marriott Marquis, one of Dragon*Con’s host hotels, there’s a tenth floor lounge that people, both con attendees and guests, often congregate on after hours. In 1995, wandering through that lounge one night, I met Bernie Wrightson. Kate Worley, co-creator of Omaha, The Cat Dancer, was also there, and I joined the two of them and several other comics fans in a late-night gab session.

I remember Jim Steranko had given a talk that day, and Kate and I talked about how unctuously charming we found him to be. This is how I know the year must have been 1995; it’s the only year Bernie Wrightson, Kate Worley, and Jim Steranko were all there. (In one of the strangenesses that life is woven from, Jim Steranko, the oldest of those three comics professionals (he was born in 1938; Bernie was born in 1948 and Kate in 1958), is now the only one still alive.)

Anyway, Kate and Bernie both turned out to be warm and kind, eager to engage and share ideas with the fans. From some of the horrifying pages he drew in his lifetime, you might not have expected that. The small conversation group sat up and drank and chatted until the wee hours.

When I met Wrightson and realized who he was, there was a first thing I wanted to know. I began our talk like this: “Could I ask you a question?”

He smiled at me. “You’re going to ask me about the spelling of my name, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He told me. He had always been “Bernie Wrightson,” but then in the late 1960s, shortly before he began working in comics, an American diver from Denver, also named Bernie Wrightson, began winning diving contests (meets?) at a high level. He won medals at the Pan American Games in 1967, and then took several gold medals at the 1968 Olympics.

It seemed to the comics artist at the time that the diver was going to become one of those crossover athletes who became more generally famous, like Sonja Henie or Esther Williams. So, rather than actually change his name, he just dropped the “e” from his first name.

The diver turned out not to have big crossover appeal after all. Today, when you read “Olympic diver Bernie Wrightson,” you say, “who?”, and people were already saying that in the 1980s, so eventually the comics artist reclaimed the original spelling of his name.

It’s not much of a story, but it’s charming nonetheless; it’s one of those little grace notes that crosses your mind when you think about a person.

I’ve met many creative people over the years. I’m glad Bernie Wrightson was one of them. Cancer is a terrible disease, every bit as horrible as the fictional horrors he illustrated. I wish it were similarly fictional.

Rest in peace, Berni(e).


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Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet, 2017.

This past Saturday, February 18, 2017, my partner, her mother, and I arrived at Manuel’s Tavern for the annual Atlanta Orthographic Meet (spelling bee) at just before six.

I compete in this competition every year; I’ve been a runner-up, but I haven’t yet won. Here’s my post about last year’s meet.

This was our first visit to Manuel’s since its renovation last year, so I was eager to see the new place.

It isn’t all that much different.

Our friend Ed Hall beat us there, and had already reserved a four-top for us. We ordered supper; I got the veggie burger, which is now a house-made patty that was terrible. The old menu’s black bean burger was much better.

But we weren’t there for the food. After getting the usual preliminaries out of the way, the Committee launched into Round One just after 7 p.m. As usual, Round One consisted of common words that can be tricky to spell, plus topical words, one of which this year was right up front. I’d guess there were 200 people competing in the first round this year.

The Atlanta Orthographic Meet isn’t like the Scripps-Howard spelling bees, where contestants spell words aloud and are eliminated with their first miss. For this, the Committee sounds out the words, which we then attempt to spell on paper. Advancement is based on the total number of words spelled correctly.

Where I’ve misspelled words, I preserved my wrong spelling with a strikethrough and put the correct spelling next to it.


Round One
  1. emolument
  2. oxygen
  3. epistolary
  4. anomaly
  5. cisgender
  6. vertiginous
  7. circuitry
  8. lichen
  9. eponymous
  10. cosplay
  11. obelisk
  12. prosecco
  13. algae
  14. cravat
  15. disrhythmia dysrhythmia
  16. elision
  17. plummet
  18. delectable
  19. apochryphal apocryphal
  20. latke

Early in the day on Saturday I predicted that “emolument” would be the topical word this year. For the 2009 meet, one of the first-round words was “stimulus.”

I wrote “dysrhythmia” correctly before second-guessing myself. “Apocryphal” I simply missed; it looked more right to me with the additional “h.” Still, eighteen correct was good enough to advance to Round Two with fifteen other competitors, including Ed.


Round Two
  1. minodiere minaudiere
  2. adipocyte
  3. transhumence transhumance
  4. occuba aucuba
  5. melisma
  6. hansom
  7. loblolly
  8. macaron
  9. bowline
  10. chissop hyssop
  11. cadastral
  12. lamasery
  13. oakum
  14. twall toile
  15. baobab

When “adipocyte” was defined as “fat cell,” I knew how to spell it, since I already knew “adipose” is fat and “-cyte” is any type of cell.

“Transhumance” I’d spelled correctly, then second-guessed myself into the wrong spelling again. Which is okay, because I spelled “cadastral” correctly through pure good luck.

In this round some people, including Ed, let the Committee psych them out: when “loblolly” was read, it was defined very specifically as referring to a type of gruel, not the pine tree. I went ahead and spelled it just like the pine tree anyway and got it right. Ed deliberately spelled it differently, on cue from the Committee, and missed it.

With a total of 28 correct over the first two rounds, I made it to Round Three. So did Ed, whose score was running a word or two ahead of mine now.


Round Three
  1. beccarel becquerel
  2. retticella reticella
  3. phalanstery
  4. psoteriology soteriology
  5. rheophilous
  6. bluchers
  7. schnecke
  8. entrepogh entrepôt
  9. wryton rhyton
  10. toromachy tauromachy

I got lucky again; every word I spelled correctly in Round Three was a guess. I now had 32 correctly spelled words out of the 45 so far presented, which was just enough to take me into Round 4—but only barely; I had the lowest score of the five who advanced to the final round. It was now very unlikely I could win.


Round Four
  1. temesis tmesis
  2. guimé guillemet
  3. alii aalii
  4. felsynmere felsenmeer
  5. tip typp

Okay, I didn’t get any right in this round. I know the word “tmesis,” but I forgot there’s no letter between the “t” and the “m.”

And I maintain, as a former resident of Hawaii, that if the reader had pronounced “aalii” correctly (the Hawaiian language has no diphthongs), I’d have spelled it correctly.

This round should have ended the contest (Ed was in third place; congratulations, Ed!). But the two women who outscored him had the same score, so we went now into “sudden death” overtime. I was out of the running now, but I spelled along just for funsies.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round One
  1. geraint gerent

Both contestants misspelled this word (as did I, as you can see). A second round was required.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Two
  1. furbelow

I thought this word’s spelling was straightforward, but the two competitors missed it. They had to try again.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Three
  1. skua

I’m familiar with this word. The last two combatants apparently weren’t. Onward.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Four
  1. claimant clamant

What I spelled is a different word. “Clamant” is related to “clamor.” Still no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Five
  1. cerack serac

Apparently no one at Manuel’s Tavern at the time knew how to spell this word. Another round.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Six
  1. chuff chough

I’d have been well chuffed, as the Brits say, if I’d spelled “chough” correctly. No doubt the two final spellers felt similarly.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Seven
  1. acai

Meaning the berry that’s all the rage in health food circles these days. The problem with this word was that everyone spelled it correctly, so there still was no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Eight
  1. chiapeen chopine

Yes, obviously I was just throwing letters down at random. It’s just as well I was out of competition by this point. The battle continued for the last two spellers.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Nine
  1. combings

The way I spelled it above was the spelling the Committee wanted. However, as I recall, the two remaining women each spelled it a different other way, and all three are correct. Still no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Ten
  1. capgnocchio catenaccio

This round didn’t yield a winner either, and “catenaccio” was the last of the words the Committee had prepared for this year. So, for the first time in the Atlanta Orthographic Meet’s forty-plus year history, a tie game was declared. Both women were declared First Place winners, and both will receive engraved beer steins at next year’s competition.

A good time was had by all. And next year, I’ll win!


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My 2016 Books.

At the end of 2015, I observed that I’d only read ten books for the year, including graphic novels—a record low number since I’ve been keeping a books diary. I had been reading, a lot, but it had mostly been blogs, magazine articles, and single issues of comic books. I resolved to pick up the pace in 2016.

Mission accomplished. I read 26 books in the year just concluded, including graphic novels (but only eight graphic novels, so it’s a pretty substantive list).

The predominant takeaway for the year’s reading is that 2016 was the year I discovered The Expanse. After watching the terrific first season of the television show, I began reading the James S.A. Corey novels on which it’s based. I read the first four, as well as two of the ancillary novellas and a short story also set in that world.

I highly recommend the series to people who enjoy hard science fiction, even though technically I wouldn’t say that’s what The Expanse is. The Expanse is sort of “science fiction science fiction”; the series begins two centuries in the future in a populated solar system that’s a fair extrapolation from the technology we have today—until a particular thing happens that violates physics as we understand it. You’ll know it when it happens, and it’s a thing that will continue to influence the story, but the human characters and institutions react and adapt to that thing as they would in a hard-science fiction universe. It’s all very relatable, and super fun to read.

Each year I try to read a few literary classics that I’d never gotten around to. This year, that project led me to read Dracula, The Wind In The Willows, and Little Women.

I was surprised and delighted by how modern Dracula seems. It’s an epistolary novel, consisting of letters between Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, Dr. Van Helsing and his colleagues, etc. But the story’s also told via newspaper stories and diary entries. It’s a common storytelling technique today; I’d had no idea authors were using it in the nineteenth century.

I liked The Wind In The Willows, that classic of English children’s literature, but now that I’ve read it, I’m astounded that any children could enjoy it. It’s almost entirely devoid of action, and spends most of its pages exhaustively describing Mole and Rat’s picnics and boating excursions.

If Dracula seemed like fashion-forward writing for the Victorian era, Little Women is entirely of its time. I’m glad I read it, and I took some pleasure from the story (that Jo is a real firecracker!), but Twain and Poe were taking much bigger chances, and stretching the bounds of literature. Louisa May Alcott’s writing is safe. I’ve heard she and Twain hated each other’s writing, and I’m not a bit surprised.

In addition to those literary classics, I also read three classics of science fiction: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. Yes, I had never read Neuromancer. I can’t read everything within 30 years of when it comes out; give me a break.

Lest Darkness Fall is about a Latin-speaking archeologist who slips back in time to the era of the late Roman Empire, and begins inventing modern tools centuries ahead of their due dates (Arabic numerals, including “0”; the printing press; telescopes) to try to prevent the Fall. I love a good alternate history story, but here’s the thing: de Camp wrote Lest Darkness Fall in the mid-1930s, so reading the book today is like a form of time travel for me as well as the protagonist, because his “present-day” perspective, while much more enlightened than that of the Romans and Goths he meets, still embodies many racist and sexist assumptions that are cringe-worthy today. Which is, for me, another reason to read it. I love to see how the wheel keeps turning: up-to-date becomes old-fashioned in such a short span of time. Reading is itself a sort of time travel.

I had a similar experience reading The Man Who Folded Himself. I also found it to be profoundly creepy, and I’ll say no more about it.

Two short story collections I read in 2016 were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Complete Pat Hobby Stories and Aimee Bender’s The Girl In The Flammable Skirt. I knew about failed, skanky 1930s screenwriter Pat Hobby because of an adaptation of the stories starring Christopher Lloyd that I caught on PBS a few years ago. I love Fitzgerald, and I love stories of the golden age of the silver screen, so it was a no-brainer that eventually I’d absorb this volume. It’s a stitch! The stories are sort of a prose version of the “cringe comedy” seen in TV shows like The Office. Although the style is somewhat dated, I often found myself laughing out loud.

My partner recommended the Aimee Bender book to me; it’s part of her library. The absurdist stories reminded me of those of the late Amanda Davis in her collection, Circling The Drain. According to Google, I’m not the first person to make that comparison. Davis was funnier, though, and at times Bender gets just a little too fey for my tastes.

I closed out the year (more or less) with my annual reread of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I love it—we all know the story, but Dickens’s prose is a joy that’s lost in most TV and movie adaptations. It’s still the only Dickens book I’ve ever read. I resolve to read Bleak House in 2017.

I further resolve to read more books by and about Charles Darwin in 2017.

Not included in the list below, because I spent all of June reading it and am still only a third of the way through it, is Steven Pinker’s doorstop, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My final literary resolution for 2017 is to finish reading this fascinating, if voluminous, volume.

For those who take an interest in such things: 14 of the 26 books on this 2016 list were read on my iPad using the Kindle app.

==========

January

  1. From Personal Ads to Cloning Labs; More Science Cartoons From Sidney Harris by Sidney Harris
  2. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  3. Justice League Volume 4: The Grid by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, & Joe Prado.
  4. Justice League Volume 5: Forever Heroes by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, and Rod Reis.

February

  1. Forever Evil: Blight by J.M. DeMatteis, Ray Fawkes, Mikel Janin, Fernando Blanco, Francis Portela, & Vicente Cifuentes.

March

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

April

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker.

May

  1. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.
  2. Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion by Brian Buccellato, Scott Hepburn, Patrick Zircher, and André Coelhou.
  3. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

July

  1. Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey.
  2. American Vampire Vol. 5 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Dustin Nguyen.
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

August

  1. [Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing by Josh Fruhlinger & Conor Lastowka.

September

  1. Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S.A. Corey.
  2. Ame-Comi Girls Vol. 3: Earth In Crisis by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Eduardo Francisco, et al.
  3. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling et al.

October

  1. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.

November

  1. Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey.
  2. The Complete Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  3. The Churn by James S.A. Corey.

December

  1. Justice League Volume 6: Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel.
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
  3. Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones.
  4. The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender.
  5. Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey.

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My 2016 Movies.

I saw 80 movies in 2016.

Movies of every sort can be viewed in all manner of ways now. The list below includes new releases in the cinema, classics on DVD or Blu-Ray, public domain oldies on YouTube. Personally owned films. Titles streamed on Netflix. I watched the Charlton Heston adventure, Secret of the Incas, via YouTube, on my iPad, for a few minutes at a time each night while falling asleep.

In an easy walk, the worst movie I saw in 2016 was Independence Day: Resurgence. Everyone associated with this movie, from director Roland Emmerich, to the cast, to the baker who supplied bagels to the craft services table, deserves to be chased out of Hollywood with torches and pitchforks.

The best movie I saw isn’t as easy to choose. Limiting myself to 2016 movies, I’ll offer the caveat that I didn’t see too many of them. My film diet mainly consists of Netflix discs and streaming experiences; my partner and I don’t get out to the cinema as often as we’d like. We do sometimes see recent releases once they’ve hit Redbox.

All that stipulated, Arrival was probably the best of the thirteen 2016 movies we slogged out to the cinema to see. Amy Adams is a personal favorite actor, and I just love science fiction that’s smartly written, eschews tedious chase or fight scenes, and isn’t afraid to present big ideas without spoon-feeding them to its audience. Arrival provided all of this, and it’s the one movie of 2016 that I was still thinking and talking about days after I’d seen it. It was sticky in my head. I ate it up with a spoon.

A close runner-up was Sully. I don’t know how much truth is in this “true story” of the commercial pilot who dead-stick landed his plane on the Hudson River with zero fatalities, but it’s a terrific white-knuckle adventure story regardless. Tom Hanks perfectly embodies another real-life captain (after Captain Phillips in Captain Phillips and Captain Lovell in Apollo 13), and Clint Eastwood never disappoints. I loved every frame of Sully.

Another “true story” we saw this year was Snowden. Again, I don’t know just how true it is, and it doesn’t matter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did his career best in it, conveying all the odd mannerisms and speech patterns of Ed Snowden as well as showing us his inner moral turmoil.

Another year, another brace of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. I really enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. Doctor Strange was time well spent, but it’s heartbreaking to see Rachel McAdams as yet another Oscar-worthy actress relegated to playing “the girlfriend” in a Marvel movie (after Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man films and Natalie Portman in Thor). We need a Marvel super-heroine movie! Or a half-dozen of them!

In a year in which Krysten Ritter killed it on the small screen in Netflix’s Jessica Jones series, is it too much to ask that female-starring super-hero films can become a more regular thing? I don’t think it is. Yeah, I know Captain Marvel is in the works, and that’s great. There still should be a Black Widow movie. And maybe a She-Hulk movie? Wouldn’t that work? I was shocked to discover, today, that the last super-hero movie starring a woman was 2004’s Catwoman with Halle Berry. No one remembers that one fondly, if at all. Maybe when DC’s Wonder Woman breaks the drought this year, we can hope for more female-centered comic book projects.

I saw Zootopia, like everyone else, and thought it was hilarious. I saw Ghostbusters, like many other people, and did not find it hilarious.

The Accountant was fun, but dumb. It had plot holes you could drive an Airstream trailer through, and it pretty much wasted the talents of Anna Kendrick and John Lithgow.

Atlanta-filmed Passengers (which, clearly, wasn’t set in Atlanta) was thought-provoking, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The “what would I do in that situation?” questions can lead to lively conversations, but the “why would a ship with 5,000 souls aboard it only have one autodoc?” questions just frustrated me.

Whit Stillman only comes around every few years. In 2016 he brought Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny with him in Love & Friendship. It’s like every other Whit Stillman movie: if you like this sort of thing (as I do), you’ll like this.

I only made it out for one movie of this year’s Out On Film festival, and that was the documentary The Trans List. Janet Mock interviewed 11 prominent transgender Americans about their lives. I wish she had interviewed fewer people and spent more time with each of them, because I hadn’t heard of several, and their stories of activism and triumph over discrimination were well worth exploring. Stonewall activists, immigrant-rights crusaders, and legal pioneers were among them. Oh, and Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner for the film, which is good, because I don’t think Ms. Jenner has gotten much press coverage since she came out and transitioned.

Rounding out the list of 2016 movies we saw in 2016 were Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and La La Land. I liked them both, neither was perfect, and I’ve nothing interesting to say about them.

In addition to feature-length movies, I saw many shorts in 2016. My partner and I always go to Landmark Midtown Cinema to see the Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts each winter, to get ready for the Academy Awards. There are always some gems there. Also, she got me the Blu-Ray boxed set of Les Blank’s quirky documentaries for Christmas in 2015. I’ve spent the past year dipping into them whenever I’ve had a few minutes to share. Blank’s movies are a lot like Stillman’s in their idiosyncrasy: If you like them, you’ll like them. Personally, I love them.

Anyway, here’s my full list:

January

  1. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary. Personally owned Blu-Ray.
  2. Holiday (1938). Directed by George Cukor. Starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Netflix DVD.
  3. Nothing (2003). Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Comedy starring David Hewlett and Andrew Miller. Netflix DVD.
  4. The Last Waltz (1978). Directed by Martin Scorsese. Documentary about and starring The Band. Netflix DVD.
  5. Smitty (2012), Directed by David M. Evans. Starring Peter Fonda, Mira Sorvino, et al. Netflix DVD.
  6. Summer of Sam (1999), Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, et al. Netflix DVD.
  7. Spellbound (1945), Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Netflix DVD.
  8. Back In Time (2015). Directed by Jason Aron. Documentary.
  9. The Music Box (1932), Directed by James Parrott. Short. Starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. YouTube.

 

February

  1. Life Itself. (2014). Directed by Steve James. Documentary. Netflix streaming.
  2. All The Little Animals (1998). Directed by Jeremy Thomas. Starring Christian Bale and John Hurt. Netflix DVD.
  3. Lambchops (1929). Directed by Murray Roth. Starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. Short. YouTube.
  4. Ave Maria (2015). Directed by Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  5. Shok (2015). Directed by Jamie Donoughue. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  6. Alles Wird Gut (2015). Directed by Patrick Vollrath. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  7. Stutterer (2015). Directed by Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  8. Day One (2015). Directed by Henry Hughes. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  9. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). Directed by Chuck Jones. Short. Starring the voice of Mel Blanc. dailymotion.com.
  10. Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941). Directed by Edward F. Cline. Starring W.C. Fields. YouTube.
  11. Sanjay’s Super Team (2015). Directed by Sanjay Patel. Short. Starring the voice of Brent Schraff. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  12. World of Tomorrow (2015). Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. Short. Starring voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  13. Bear Story (2014). Directed by Gabriel Osorio Vargas. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  14. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (2014). Directed by Konstantin Bronzit. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  15. If I Was God… (2015). Directed by Cordell Barker. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  16. The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse (2015). Directed by Camille Chaix, Hugo Jean, et al. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  17. The Loneliest Stoplight (2015). Directed by Bill Plympton. Short. Starring the voice of Patton Oswalt. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  18. Catch It (2015). Directed by Paul Bar, Marion Demaret, Nadège Forner Pierre-Baptiste Marty, Julien Robyn, and Jordan Soler. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  19. Prologue (2015). Directed by Richard Williams. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  20. Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary short. Blu-Ray.
  21. Like Dandelion Dust (2009). Directed by Jon Gunn. Starring Mira Sorvino, Cole Hauser, and Barry Pepper. Netflix DVD.
  22. Ex Machina (2015). Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  23. Westworld (1973). Directed by Michael Crichton. Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James Brolin. Netflix Blu-Ray.

 

March

  1. Children of the Century (1999). Directed by Diane Kurys. Starring Juliette Binoche. Netflix DVD.
  2. Bridge of Spies (2015). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. Zootopia (2016). Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush. Starring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  4. The Big Short (2015). Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Directed by George Miller. Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Directed by Robert Wise. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, et al. Netflix streaming.

 

April

  1. Brooklyn (2015). Directed by John Crowley. Starring Saoirse Ronan, et al.
  2. The Grey Zone (2001). Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, et al. Netflix DVD.
  3. Cloverfield (2008). Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.

 

May

  1. Waitress (2007). Directed by Adrienne Shelly. Starring Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly, and Nathan Fillion. DVD.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Directed by the Russo Brothers. Starring Chris Evans, et al. Redbox.
  3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Netflix streaming.
  4. Galaxy Quest (1999). Directed by Dean Parisot. Starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, et al. Netflix streaming.

 

June

  1. Trainwreck (2015). Directed by Judd Apatow. Starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  2. Trading Places (1983). Directed by John Landis. Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. Captain America: Civil War (2016). Directed by Russo Brothers. Starring all the people. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  4. Creed (2015). Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  5. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). Directed by Sam Liu. Animated. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  6. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984). Directed by Leonard Nimoy. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy. Netflix streaming.

July

  1. The Red Shoes (1948). Directed by Powell/Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook. Netflix DVD.
  2. Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). Directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring CGI. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  3. Love & Friendship (2016). Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Regal Tara Cinema.
  4. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013). Directed by Jay Oliva. Animated. Netflix streaming.

August

  1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1984). Directed by Leonard Nimoy. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley, Catherine Hicks, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  2. Ghostbusters (2016). Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Kristen Wiig et al. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  3. Men With Guns (1997). Directed by John Sayles. Starring Federico Luppi. Netflix DVD.
  4. The Dirty Dozen (1967). Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  5. The Lobster (2015). Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. Redbox DVD.

 

September

  1. Snowden (2016). Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  2. Sully (2016). Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. AMC North DeKalb 16.

October

  1. The Trans List (2016). Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Documentary. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Batfleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary short. Blu-Ray.
  4. Strange Days (1995). Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett. Netflix DVD.
  5. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015). Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen. Documentary. Netflix streaming.

 

November

  1. Rescue Dawn (2006). Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Christian Bale. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  2. The Accountant (2016). Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick. Regal Hollywood 24.
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Denholm Elliott. DVD.
  4. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). Directed by John Hughes. Starring Steve Martin and John Candy. Netflix DVD.
  5. Arrival (2016). Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Abbott and Costello. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  6. Doctor Strange (2016). Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch. AMC Sugarloaf 18.
  7. Secret of the Incas (1954). Directed by Jerry Hopper. Starring Charlton Heston and Thomas Mitchell. YouTube.
  8. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). Directed by Marcel Ophüls. Documentary. Netflix DVD (2 discs).

 

December

  1. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Directed by David Yates. Starring Eddie Redmayne. Regal Hollywood 24.
  2. Love Actually (2003). Directed by Richard Curtis. Starring all the Brits. Netflix streaming.
  3. Muppet Christmas Carol (1993). Directed by Brian Henson. Starring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog. DVD.
  4. Passengers (2016). Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence. N. DeKalb 16.
  5. La La Land (2016). Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Regal Tara Cinema.
  6. Goodbye, Lenin (2003). Directed by Wolfgang Becker. Netflix DVD.

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The Trans List.

Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, Out On Film, is going on right now, and on Monday evening I went to a screening of The Trans List at Landmark Midtown Cinema, on the edge of Piedmont Park. The film will be broadcast on HBO later this year.

It’s not feature-length; it runs about an hour, and features interviews with 11 prominent transgender Americans. The interviews were conducted by fashion editor Janet Mock, although we never see her on screen after her brief introduction. The subjects are presented alone on the screen, talking about their lives, with a few intercuts to home movies and childhood photos.

The interviewees run the gamut of the transgender experience in the United States. They’re black, white, and Hispanic; teenage through senior citizen; men, women, and nonbinary; famous and virtually unknown (to me, at least, and I like to think I keep up). I won’t recap all the interviews here, but I’ll touch on some of them.

Kylar Broadus was up first. He’s an African-American attorney, and a few years back he addressed a U.S. Senate committee about the importance of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He briefly told his story about growing up an awkward tomboy in Missouri, usually “mistaken” for a boy even when his parents managed to get him into a dress—years before he transitioned for real. He spoke with a quiet dignity, and it was hard not to be moved by his struggles with the double whammy of being both gender-variant and black in a world that’s too often both transphobic and racist.

Nicole Maines’ segment helps illustrate the better world that all of us are creating by being out and proud in the 21st century. She’s still a teenager, but she has been out and an activist since she was very small; she never had to endure (and then undo) male puberty. Her family, including her (formerly?) identical twin brother, are accepting and supportive. Nicole has fought her high school for her Title IX right to use the correct restroom. Could a story like hers have happened 20 years ago? I find it unlikely; the information, the understanding, and the role models to help such a young person simply didn’t exist until quite recently. Nicole’s is an inspiring story of possibility.Borrowed from bambysalcedo.com

Shane Ortega is an Army non-commissioned officer, and one of the first U.S. military members to transition on active duty. Another transperson of color, he’s charming, very good-natured and funny, and a veteran of two combat tours. As a veteran myself (though not of combat), I’m proud to know he’s out there, fighting for every transperson’s right to serve. Transgender people historically have joined the military in numbers far higher than the general population. Thanks to people like Ortega, soon we’ll be able to do so openly.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was the most colorful personality interviewed. She was at Stonewall and was a leader in the riots. She’s had a long life full of activism.

Rounding out the list were Alok Vaid-Menon, a writer with a nonbinary gender identity; Amos Mac, photographer and founder of “Original Plumbing” magazine; Buck Angel, the porn star famous as the “man with a pussy”; Bamby Salcedo, a Mexican-American activist and organizer, Caroline Cossey, model, former Bond girl, and current Atlanta resident; and Laverne Cox, internationally-famous television star.

Oh, and finally, Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner. I’m glad Jenner was included, because I don’t think the former Olympian and Kardashian-by-marriage has received much media attention since she transitioned last year.

This points up the biggest flaw with The Trans List: it’s much too short, or else there were too many subjects. For the really famous interviewees, like Cox and Jenner, I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know about them. For the more obscure ones, like Amos Mac, I learned enough about them to know they’re interesting people, but got nothing really substantial to take away with me. They’re superficial sketches of personalities that deserve in-depth portraits.

Maybe that was the purpose behind the film. In an era when we all have Google in our pockets, I guess a project like The Trans List only needs to put names in front of us. If we want to know more, we can go learn more on our own.

If that’s the case, I’d call the movie a success, because I’ve certainly done that with many of these fascinating individuals. I hope there will be more; maybe this could become a series.


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Atlanta Maker Faire 2016.

This past Saturday my partner and I attended Atlanta Maker Faire 2016, which was actually held next door to Atlanta, in Decatur (if you’re a local, you know that makes a difference). It was like Atlanta Pride, the Inman Park Festival, and various other annual events, in that relevant businesses and clubs from all over the area gathered to set up booths and tables and show off their various wares and services. Most were set up on Decatur High School’s football field, covered in artificial turf, which seems vaguely appropriate.

There were blacksmiths. Model plane and drone hobbyists. Several robotics teams from colleges and high schools. A guy was in attendance who builds canoes and sailboats skinned in Tyvek insulating fabric. And there were many, many 3D printers, owned by organizations that offer 3D-printing services or offer to help people build their own printers.

As interesting as the Faire was overall (and as annoying as is the precious silent “e” in the name), it’s the 3D printers that really grabbed my attention. They’re a curiosity now; an expensive toy for most people. But in the very near future they’re going to completely revolutionize our world. Pretty much everything we wear and use on a daily basis will be printed at home: clothes, food, silverware, eyeglasses, replacement parts, pets—and it will seem as normal to us as buying things in stores does today.

Even larger items will be 3D printed. Today we have home printers for small jobs, but still go to Kinko’s if we need a big production collated and bound. Three-D printing will be the same; we’ll print whistles, shoes, and ukuleles at home, but go to Kinko’s analogues to pick up our freshly printed couches, or automobile tires, or for that matter, automobiles.

This decade has seen a lot of hand-wringing over Amazon.com and other etailers driving big brick-and-mortar stores out of business. The etailers dominate today, but they will be the next to go, or at least change radically, because we won’t need them once 3D printing technology has matured. The only physical objects we’ll need to buy is the raw stock of plastic, protein, metal, and other materials that our printers use. If the etailers survive, it will be because they’re selling these materials, or they’re selling the patterns that our printers use to deliver the finished products.

Of course, we’ll be making our own patterns, or modifying downloaded patterns to suit our own tastes. The world of pervasive 3D printing will be a bespoke world.

What do you think about this near future? Leave a comment and let me know!

Below are some links I gleaned from my visit to the Faire. There’s some fun stuff here; enjoy!

Creative Solar USA
Solarize Decatur-DeKalb
Creative Solar USA is a company that evaluates residences for their suitability for solar power systems, then installs them. It’s working with the Solarize Decatur-DeKalb coalition.

A solar power installation will be paid off in around ten years, with current technology. The system will last for 30 years, so a homeowner would have free electricity for 20 years before having to replace the system. Presumably by 30 years from now the technology will be cheaper and last longer.

3D Printing Tech
This company sells 3D printing services and consultations in the area.

Kennesaw State University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Team
These guys were KSU students who had built what looked like a tiny submarine built into a transparent bento box. I’d have loved to see it in action, but it was broken down when I visited their booth. “We’re waiting on a part,” they told us.

Decatur Makers
Decatur Makers maintains a “maker space” for members to use. According to their mission statement, “Decatur Makers is a welcoming, family-friendly community of inquisitive, motivated people who work together in a safe environment to discover, understand, design and create interesting things.”

Decatur Makers have a “MakerBot Replicator 2” 3D printer. It retails for around $3,000. I found it for sale here at Amazon.com.

3d Orchard
This is an online, crowdsourced catalog of 3d-printable patterns.

Freeside Atlanta
To be honest I’m not sure what these people are about. I can’t get their website to load.

Maven Makers
These folks offer another makerspace, like Decatur Makers.

Nanofarming
Growing produce in tiny glass-walled biospheres!

TSI Solutions
These are your people if you want extruded metal frameworks.

Makercise
These folks have plans on their website that show you how to make your own propane-powered aluminum casting foundry out of a metal cook pot and other items. It would only cost a few hundred dollars; my partner is encouraging me to go for it.

I Made 3D
On display at this booth was a “JellyBox” homemade 3D printer. I doubt it’s as versatile as the MakerBot printer mentioned above, but it’s much cheaper, at about $800. The IMade3D people were selling kits.


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Senators Debate “Religious Freedom.”

Tuesday night at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, state senators Greg Kirk (R), of Americus, and Vincent Fort (D) of Atlanta kicked off a series of four debates that will take place around the state on the subjects of “Religious Freedom, the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.”

The other debates will be on the same subjects, and will take place (or have already taken place) this week in Macon, Tifton, and Savannah.

Senator Kirk, a former Baptist preacher, was the introducer of the “First Amendment Defense Act” during the last Georgia legislative session. He was also a proponent of the “Pastor Protection Act” and the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Parts of all three bills were incorporated into HB 757, which was vetoed by Governor Deal this past spring.

Senator Fort, the minority whip in the upper chamber, is a former history professor who has been a strong supporter of the LGBT community for many years. I saw him speak at an event while my lawsuit was ongoing; he recognized me without introduction, gave me his card, and encouraged me to reach out to him if there was anything he could do to help.

You’d think Deal’s veto would mean that we’d seen the last of these anti-LGBT bills in the Peach State. You’d be wrong; Kirk and fellow Republican Sen. Josh McKoon have both pledged to re-introduce such bills during next year’s legislative session.

Turnout to the debate was light; there couldn’t have been more than sixty people in the pews. I should note that Saint Mark is a liberal Methodist church in the heart of Midtown, so its leadership and congregation are either LGBT themselves or are solid allies. I think the debate wasn’t promoted well; I learned about it from a Georgia Equality email, and after the fact some people told me they wished they’d known about it.

What’s next? Polygamy? —Sen. Greg Kirk

Content was also light; if you’ve been following the emergence of these “religious freedom” bills as they’ve been festering in statehouses around the country, you know what they’re about, and you wouldn’t have learned anything new at this event. Below are some quick takes, borrowed from my own live tweets during the debate. Any erroneous details are due to my own poor recollection.

Sen. Kirk claimed the “Pastor Protection Act” would ensure that clergypeople cannot be forced to perform a wedding they object to on religious grounds.

Sen. Fort retorted that no pastor can be forced to perform any wedding he or she doesn’t want to, on any grounds, religious or not.

Kirk argued that bills such as these are simply “common sense”; they’ll protect the religious without affecting anyone else.

Fort’s retort was that they offer no protections that aren’t already guaranteed by the Constitution and they will expose Georgia to boycotts and other economic harms like what’s happening in North Carolina in the wake of HB2’s passage.

When a moderator asked Kirk if same-sex couples should be a protected class under the law, Kirk admitted that post-Obergefell, that is a matter of settled law. But then he did the usual “slippery slope” scaremongering by asking, “What’s next? Polygamy?”

In the question and answer portion of the program, an audience member asked, “Senator Kirk, you keep saying ‘traditional marriage.’ Define that.”

He took the bait, and said “traditional marriage is marriage as defined in the Bible”; the questioner pounced, reminding him that the Bible pretty much celebrates polygamy. Kirk backpedaled, explaining that he’d meant traditional marriage is what most Christians believe it to be. Slippery slope, indeed.

Senator Fort won raucous applause when he declared that Georgia needs a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. This was definitely his crowd. I wonder how his message will be received in Tifton.

I’ll close by noting that Fort and Kirk were both unfailingly polite to and respectful of each other, of the moderators, and of the audience. Anyone who turned out hoping to see a Republican primaries-style uglyfest would have been disappointed.


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Mara Keisling Visits Atlanta.

This week Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) came down from Washington to speak at the Philip Rush Center in Atlanta about the current state of transgender rights and advocacy in the United States. I was excited to attend and see Mara again; I’ve known her since 2009, when she was instrumental in getting me to speak before the House committee on labor on the importance of passing ENDA. She’s a hard-working and dedicated advocate who has improved all our lives in her time at NCTE.

Mara spoke for about two hours, and I live-tweeted the event. I’ll paraphrase and flesh out my tweets in this post, but don’t think this is all-inclusive; I didn’t catch everything that was said. This is just all that I tweeted or remember of the meeting. Any errors or omissions of fact are my own.

After stressing that NCTE is not a political organization and cannot endorse candidates for office, Mara noted that the Obama Administration has been quite good for the transgender community. If I heard her correctly, under President Obama there have been 111 discrete actions by the federal government that have made life a little better for transgender Americans.

While the so-called “ENDA executive order” is a famous example, there have been many others most people don’t even know about, and some that came as a surprise even to NCTE. A bulletin last week from the General Services Administration, for example, mandated that transgender people may use the restroom matching their gender identity in all federal buildings (the GSA’s job is to manage federal buildings), and Mara said nobody told NCTE ahead of time that would be coming.

She talked for a while about identity documents and the gender markers that most of them have. Medicare, for example, apparently has “F” or “M” in big letters in the center of the cards recipients use. This means some transgender Medicare recipients have no choice but to out themselves to their medical providers.

Gender markers are also used on the DD 214 forms that all military veterans receive upon discharge, and which are needed to obtain VA medical care and all other veterans’ services. They’re also on passports, and of course they’re on all our driver’s licenses.

NCTE is lobbying hard to get [gender] markers removed from most or all identity documents

NCTE is lobbying hard to get these markers removed from most or all identity documents, since they serve no function except to invite discriminatory behavior. Someone in the audience noted that gender markers are an artifact of the time when such documents didn’t incorporate photographs; now that they do, they’re no more needed than is information about eye and hair color, which are pretty much gone from IDs today. Mara thinks it will take several more years of lobbying before gender markers will be removed.

The “bathroom bills” like HB2 in North Carolina are a direct result of the achievement of nationwide marriage equality last year. Denying LGBT people the right to marriage equality was the central front in the culture war for many years; now that it’s lost, the religious right has set its sights on the transgender community instead.

Texas will probably pass a bill like HB2 next year. It will be the next state to do so, but it won’t be the last. Expect the religious right to be very creative in the ways it finds to attack, humiliate, and restrict the rights of transgender people in the near future. While life has steadily improved for us in recent times, and will continue to in the long run, the next few years will suck while we’re in the crosshairs.

In 2010, NCTE worked with other organizations to produce Injustice At Every Turn, a comprehensive nationwide survey about being transgender in the United States and the discrimination and other ills we face. An update is in the works this year, and there have been over 28,000 respondents. The results will be out next year.

For the 2010 survey, a question about suicide was included at the last minute, and results indicated that 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide during their lives. It was discovered after the fact that the question was poorly worded, to the extent that the responses were unlikely to be accurate. This time around a similar question was carefully designed with a suicide prevention group with expertise in these matters. The results were about the same.

Mara was in the news last year when she (and other activists) used the restrooms in North Carolina’s Capitol as a protest against HB2, intending to get arrested. Mara said NAACP members who are veterans of the 1960s civil rights era, including Rep. John Lewis, coached her in how to get arrested.

Most of the money funding used by transgender rights groups comes from gay groups. Mara didn’t offer speculation as to why this might be the case, but it seems obvious to me: most trans people are too broke to be donating to nonprofits.

A trans movement, Mara declared in conclusion, must also be antiracist, antipoverty, anti-incarceration, pro-immigrant, feminist, and pro-worker.

Summary: life is incrementally better for us in 2016. But strap in for a tough ride to come.

It was good to see Mara again. It always is.


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Cross-pollination.

Last week I made a post for my Skeptic Ink Network blog, Transubstantiation. The content, about the compartmentalization of knowledge and how it leads to our making mistakes sometimes, seemed more fitting for that blog than this one. But here’s a link if you’d like to read it.


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Making Faces.

MakingFacesfavA few months ago I talked about body shapes, and the gendered differences between them that lead us to conclude “That’s a man,” or “That’s a woman,” when we see someone for the first time. “Sexual dimorphism” is the technical term for these differences.

This time I’m going to talk about sexual dimorphism in faces, and what it means for transgender people. There’s more to talk about here, because the differences are less obvious until you get in close. Bodies are unsubtle in their shapes; faces are all subtlety.

I’m an expert at reading faces. We all are, unless we suffer from prosopagnosia (face blindness). Almost all of us have a powerful ability to distinguish one face from another. It’s probably humanity’s most amazing talent. Look at these two faces:

BenAffleckHenryCavill

It’s obvious these are two different faces. Most of you will recognize the individuals in these photos as movie stars Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck—or at least, since Affleck’s more famous, you’ll recognize that they’re Ben Affleck and someone else. The two co-starred in the same super-hero movie blockbuster this year.

There’s very little difference in looks between the two men. Both are Caucasian and have short dark hair. In these shots, both have a little stubble. Neither has a distinguishing scar or mole. They even both have clefts in their chins, although you can’t see Cavill’s very well in these shots. If you walked up to both men with a pair of calipers and a ruler, the dissimilarities you’d be able to document, before they pushed you away and called the police, would be measured in just millimeters, at most.

And yet, even when their characters weren’t in their iconic costumes, I’m certain no moviegoers had any trouble telling one from the other. It’s how we’re wired. Our brains devote significant processing power to the task of telling one face from another. Those tiny distinctions in shape and features add up to an enormous gulf in recognition.

You can test yourself on this ability. Go to imdb.com and look up the cast of a movie you’re familiar with. Even if you cover up the actors’ names on your screen, you’ll be able to identify most of them just going by the tiny thumbnail images of their faces. It’s really an astonishing ability. Those thumbnails are only a handful of pixels wide, and yet we can both tell the actors apart and usually identify them by name. It’s really an astonishing ability we have, when you think about it.

Martian_face_viking_cropped

Not a face on Mars.

We aren’t only good at spotting one face from another; we see faces everywhere we look, even when there’s no face to see: in coconuts, in light sockets, and in a colon next to an open or close parenthesis symbol. This phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it’s why some idiots think extraterrestrials have been building monuments on Mars.

In addition to identifying individuals, this super-power lets us tell other things about people, too. Age, for example. We can look at side-by-side photos of a person at 20 and the same person at 30 and 40 and usually tell which version is which, even if the person has aged pretty well and we can’t point to any specific differences among the faces. The same goes for spotting familial relationships, and sometimes even a person’s ethnicity.

And it’s especially true for determining the gender of a face. When we see a face for the first time, dozens or hundreds of small indicators flood into our brains through our optic nerves, and they add up into a conclusion that’s usually “male” or “female.” Our brains are resistant to concluding “a little of both,” or “possibly neither,” and despite our best intentions, will try to reject any data that conflict with that initial conclusion.

This is a source of consternation for transgender people, and for well-meaning allies. Most transgender people work hard to make our faces match our gender identity; to look “cisnormative,” for reasons of safety as much as for vanity. But it’s often very difficult, even with surgery. Here are some of the major ways male and female faces look different that most people never realize, or even think about:

A man’s eyebrows are usually lower, closer to his eyes.

In profile, the septum of a woman’s nose usually describes a right or obtuse angle with her upper lip; a man’s septum more often points downward in an acute angle.

Men’s faces are wider, and their heads are larger in proportion to their bodies than women’s.

A woman has a lower forehead, and her hairline is more like the top of an oval. Meanwhile, a man’s hairline (if it hasn’t begun receding) is shaped vaguely like a capital “M.”

Men’s upper lips are flatter; a woman’s lip is likelier to have a “bee-stung” appearance.

Women have more vertical foreheads, while men’s foreheads slightly slope back.

The most obvious difference, the one that most bedevils trans women, is the beard shadow. It’s the single most powerful indicator of gender, and it’s almost always visible—no matter how light in color are the whiskers and no matter how recently and close one has shaved. And when people see a beard shadow, their brains tell them they’re seeing a man. No other indicator of gender is so powerful.

It sort of works the other way for transgender men who haven’t developed facial hair, but it’s usually more understated and therefore unconscious. People don’t realize they’re not seeing a beard shadow, specifically, but it does seem to them there’s something feminine about the face that they can’t put their finger on.

It’s why I was willing to spend thousands of dollars and endure dozens of hours of painful electrolysis having mine removed; it’s why I never even considered presenting as female full time until it was completely gone. Nothing gets a transwoman “clocked” like a beard shadow, and when a transwoman is clocked, her life is in danger.

Think about this post the next time you look in a mirror. What is the face you wear saying about you?


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Pryor Restraint.

Pryor restraintA few days ago, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump released a list of jurists he claimed would be his short list of potential appointees to the Supreme Court if he becomes President next year. The list is not composed of progressive individuals, if the reaction from the liberal Internet is to be believed. If the contenders were gathered together in, say, a cantina, it might be fair to state that, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” But in the case of at least one of the names on the list, I might humbly suggest that such judgment (no pun intended) may be premature.

William Pryor is a 2005 George W. Bush appointee to the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor, nicknamed “Wild Bill,” is infamous for certain homophobic statements, and for arguments he has made in legal briefs. I’ll cite two examples.

Before his nomination to the federal bench, he was Alabama’s attorney general, and in that role he filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas. Lawrence is the case that led to the overturn of all state laws against gay sex. Attorney General Pryor’s brief urged the Court not to declare “homosexual sodomy as a fundamental constitutional right,” arguing that acceptance of “a constitutional right that protects ‘the choice of one’s partner’ and ‘whether and how to connect sexually’ must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia.”

That’s pretty strongly indicative of Pryor’s thoughts about gay people, especially when you consider his brief was an amicus (“friend of the court”); Pryor didn’t directly have a dog in the fight—although presumably Alabama also had a sodomy law that would have been (and was) invalidated by Lawrence‘s win.

After eight years of Dubya, followed by several more years of a Republican-controlled Senate stonewalling many of President Obama’s judicial nominees, the Eleventh Circuit had taken on a considerable right-wing tinge.

Second, during the contentious U.S. Senate confirmation hearings on Pryor’s nomination to the Eleventh Circuit, he mentioned that as a result of “a value judgment,” he and his wife rescheduled a family vacation to avoid the annual “Gay Day” at Disney World.

Kevin Cathcart, who was the executive director of Lambda Legal when Pryor was nominated, said at the time, “William Pryor is the most demonstrably antigay judicial nominee in recent memory.”

I knew all these things about Judge Pryor when Lambda Legal and I won our lawsuit at the federal district court level in July 2010 and defendants Sewell Brumby and the State of Georgia appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. And I was worried. Pryor wasn’t on the record with anything about transgender people, and to be homophobic isn’t necessarily also to be transphobic, but it’s rare for a person to be one and not the other.

At the time there were a dozen or so judges on the court, and our case was going to be heard (and ruled on) by a randomly selected panel of three of them.

After eight years of Dubya, followed by several more years of a Republican-controlled Senate stonewalling many of President Obama’s judicial nominees, the Eleventh Circuit had taken on a considerable right-wing tinge. While no cases had yet tested the court on LGBT rights specifically, there had been recent decisions unfavorable to civil rights generally and to employees’ rights specifically. And Pryor had joined the majority vote in at least one of those cases. He was the personification of everything we imagined could go wrong with our suit. The lower court win could be reversed, and all the years of struggle would be for nothing.

The year 2010 came to an end and 2011 began to grind along. We didn’t know when oral arguments in the appeal would be heard; it could’ve been months or years. The only thing I did know was that with each passing day it was incrementally more likely that the date would be announced. I became an obsessive watcher of the Eleventh Circuit, reading up on the backgrounds of the judges, checking the progress of potential Obama nominees, and reading each new decision as it came down. I was in a constant state of nervousness. The odds were not in our favor.

Finally, in late October, my attorney Greg called with the news that we had a date for the oral arguments (early December), and our panel had been assigned.

I took a deep breath and held it as Greg said, “I have some bad news and some good news.”

“First the bad news,” he said, followed by his own long inhalation. “We got Judge Pryor.”

“Quickly, Greg,” I said, paraphrasing Peter O’Toole from the underappreciated classic, King Ralph, “The good news!”

The good news was much better: our other two judges were Rosemary Barkett and Phyllis A. Kravitch, two amazing women with long, solid track records for progressive judicial temperaments. I was immensely reassured; with these two on our panel, I felt confident of a 2-1 vote in our favor.

But a two to one vote is exactly as much as I expected. Everything I’d learned about Pryor told me he wouldn’t be on our side.

It was on the day of the arguments that I began to wonder otherwise. When Brumby’s attorney rose to defend their side, he was eviscerated. Figuratively, that is. Before he could get his first sentence out, Judge Pryor interrupted to say, “You have a big problem with Price Waterhouse.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins was the main precedent our lawsuit was premised upon.

The attorney stammered and stumbled through the next few minutes, enduring constant interruptions from Pryor and Judge Barkett (Judge Kravitch remained largely silent). He was trying to make the case that firing me for transitioning was somehow different from firing me for being transgender. The panel was having none of is, and Pryor finally advised the man to “take it up with Congress” if he didn’t like the current state of the law. Barkett then offered to “put [him] out of [his] misery” and let him sit down. She was laughing as she said it. The defendants’ attorney was laughed off the lectern. Literally.

The ruling, which came down a lightning-fast six days later, was 3-0. Whatever negative opinions William Pryor may have about LGBT people personally, in my case, at least, he didn’t let those thoughts cloud his judgment.

Which makes me wonder if his inclusion on Trump’s list was a mistake.


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A Sharp ReDuke!

It would be hard to remake The Dukes of Hazzard today, because much of the iconography of the classic TV series is evocative of the racist past of the American South.

I think I’ve hit upon a solution: move the story to England!

It will be called “The Dukes of Hampshire.” Beau and Lucas are actual dukes, and their cousin Margaret’s denim shorts are neatly hemmed and creased.

Their car is still a Dodge Charger. But the steering wheel is on the right, obvi, and instead of being named General Lee, it’s called Field Marshal Montgomery. A Union Jack is painted on the roof.

A constant thorn in the Dukes’ side, despite their “never intending any distress,” is Council Leader Hogg and his crony, Police Constable Coltrane.

The theme music’s lyrics, rather than calling the young troublemakers “good ole boys,” describes them as “right jolly chaps.”

You may all thank me in the comments.


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Transgender characters in comic books.

alters72dpiThe New York Times recently reported about Alters, a new comic book from a new comic book company, Aftershock Comics, that’s launching in September.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”

Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.

The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.

I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simplyultra-humanite3 part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.

The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.

Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.

DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.

Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.alysiayeohcomposite

Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.

You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”

Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).

And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.

There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.

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Gender dysphoria is nothing like anorexia.

NotAnnNoTextYet another piece of … writing, this time by Moira Fleming at right-wing blog The Federalist, has tried to compare gender dysphoria to anorexia. In making this particular argument, Fleming’s post joins a tall stack of similar half-assed blog posts and position papers from transphobic “pundits” in recent years. Here’s the crux of Fleming’s piece, which is headlined “Why Is Transgender An Identity But Anorexia A Disorder?”:

The certainty that one is a woman despite being born a man sounds awfully similar to the conviction that one’s body is overweight even when body-mass index is at starvation levels.

You can almost see the wheels turning in the minds of people making this argument: “Anorexics think they’re fat, even though they’re really thin; transgender people think they’re women, even though they’re really men.” And everyone who says this seems to think it’s some brilliant revelation, and they’re the first to ever think of it.

Fleming, like former doctor Paul McHugh, Fox News contributor Keith Ablow, the Witherspoon Institute, and many other “experts” who have asserted this gender dysphoria = anorexia correspondence, makes a critical error. Ablow even goes so far as to assert that gender dysphoria is an “exact parallel” to anorexia nervosa (the clinical name for the condition).

The type of anorexia these “pundits” are describing (the condition presents differently in different people) is the delusion that the sufferer is fat or is at risk of becoming fat, when she (they’re almost always women) is actually thin. She looks at her body in the mirror and sees something that is at odds with reality.

Transgender women (Fleming doesn’t seem to be aware of transgender men) are not delusional. You may deny that our gender identity is really what we say it is, but that is not the same as saying we’re delusional. When we look

You may deny that our gender identity is really what we say it is, but that is not the same as saying we’re delusional.

at our bodies, we see them correctly as being biologically male, not female. Indeed, that’s the problem. If we truly were delusional, the OEM genitals and contours wouldn’t be a problem, because we wouldn’t recognize their maleness. We’d believe we already looked like Marilyn Monroe, or Beyoncé, or whoever our personal ideal of womanliness happened to be.

To be transgender is to be acutely aware of our biological birth sex, and to be sufficiently unhappy about it to want to change it.

Now, the difference between how an anorexic woman sees herself and how a transwoman sees herself could conceivably put down to semantics. Maybe the people making this equivalency are talking less about self-perception and more about outcomes. What happens when an anorexic’s belief about herself is indulged and supported, versus the result when the same is done for transgender women?

In a sense, it’s not a fair fight, because I’ve never heard of a woman with anorexia whose loved ones and friends told her, “yeah, totally, you’re fat! Let’s take some pounds off,” while it’s the standard treatment paradigm to accept a person’s well-diagnosed gender dysphoria and recommend they embrace their gender identity.

But there certainly have been many people with anorexia who persisted in their beliefs and continued to shed weight, despite the efforts of those around them. Here are some famous examples.

Karen Carpenter
The singer of the 1970s brother-sister duo, The Carpenters, lost a dramatic amount of weight and died of related heart failure at the age of 32.

Christy Henrich
Henrich was a world-class gymnast in the 1990s. Her weight dwindled to 47 pounds before she died of multiple organ failure.

Michael Krasnow
Author of the memoir, My Life As A Male Anorexic. The 5′ 9″ American weighed 64 pounds when he died at age 28.

There’s another case, which is looking to turn out better than those three; that of Rachael Farrokh, a 5′ 7″ actress in her thirties whose weight dwindled to under fifty pounds. I’m not linking to any of the stories about her, because most of them contain some shocking photos of her ravaged, wasted body. You can Google her forewarned.

Ms. Farrokh is on the road to recovery, but only because she managed to break the hold her disease had on her and began gaining weight. She was on the brink of death before then.

Now, here are some transgender people whose self-perception was validated:

Jennifer Finney Boylan
Boylan transitioned over ten years ago. She is a respected novelist, college professor, and New York Times columnist.

Laverne Cox
Since transitioning, Cox has become a motivational speaker, activist, and an Emmy-nominated actress.

Jamison Green
Green is an academic, activist, and author.

All three of these individuals are affirmed and respected in their gender identity, and all are thriving, by any objective standard. Yes, this is an anecdotal list of names that I selected myself. Yes, you’ll be able to find transgender people who haven’t done this well after they transitioned. Poor outcomes include detransitioning and suicide. But the evidence is overwhelming that transitioning makes the vast majority of transgender people happier; in almost every case where it hasn’t, the reason is likely to be transphobic persecution, which originates outside the person, or that the person was misdiagnosed with gender dysphoria in the first place.

But finding transgender people who haven’t thrived isn’t necessary for the analogy to fail. If even one transgender person transitions and does well, it’s bullshit to compare gender dysphoria to anorexia, because anorexia’s sufferers always, 100 percent, grow weak and sick. Either they overcome their disorder, or they die. Every single time.

Show me even one verifiable counterexample of a person with anorexia flourished after she came to believe she was overweight when she wasn’t, and I’ll start taking this claim seriously. It’s not going to happen.

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