Talk about yer damn feelings, people

Notes from reading one too many romances with inorganic tension because the leads won’t just talk to each other oh my god. But some of these go for nonromantic plots too – and it sure would be great to see more that did. Always write stories that give nonromantic relationships the weight they actually deserve!


I love angst, I love dramatic reveals, I love emotionally constipated characters, I love all the things that usually accompany a “use your words” plot. But it is incredibly frustrating when the problem a character is creating becomes so much bigger than the problem they’re avoiding. So, as soon as your character begins to be unhappy because they have a feeling they “cannot” express, please consider:

Reasons for a character not to talk about their feelings with the object of said feelings that can be strong enough to drive an entire plot

  • Feelings which are inappropriate to the situation (usually romantic):
    • Superior/subordinate
    • In-laws, lovers of friends, etc
    • Enemies. Not rivals; rivalry is personal and surmountable. Enemies, who have third parties invested in them staying enemies, thank you very much
  • Well-founded (even if ultimately inaccurate) fear that doing so will negatively and seriously affect a valued relationship, romantic or otherwise:
    • Founded in social norms: “I can’t tell you I love you; we’re both women" (this isn’t fear of third-party consequences; that there would be an ordinary plot problem. this section is purely about the object’s reaction)
    • Founded in experience: "I can’t tell you I love you; I’m not lovable" (i.e. abuse. use with extreme caution)
    • Founded in the other person’s prior behavior, if done very convincingly: "I can’t tell you I love you; I tried [more than] once and you shut me down”
    • Founded in straight-up common sense: “I did a legitimately bad thing and you will think badly of me if I tell you my feelings about this”
  • Doomed circumstance
    • We’ll never see each other again, so let’s not admit how sad that is

Reasons for a character not to talk about their feelings with the object of said feelings that are strong enough to contribute to dramatic tension, but really can’t drive an entire plot

  • Characteristic reticence
    • Reticence is essentially a personality trait, but it probably came from somewhere, and it definitely manifests differently depending on the character’s background
    • Class conditioning (comes in many varieties): stiff upper lip, Stepford wifeliness, aristocratic dignity; toughness, survival mechanisms, nobody-cares-so-don’t-whine; etc
    • Gender conditioning (mostly masculine, but not exclusively): boys don’t cry, don’t be a wimp, strength is silence, etc
    • Habit: politicians or diplomats, the solitary, those with authority
  • Inexperience and/or youth
    • “I don’t even know what I am feeling”
    • “I’ve never done this before and don’t know how”

Reasons for a character not to talk about their feelings with the object of said feelings that just make everyone roll their eyes and want to smack them

  • Spite, pride, anger
    • This is where rivalry belongs
    • “I’m too Cool And Independent to love you” (not to be confused with straight-up common sense: a woman who fears marriage will stifle her independence isn’t being prideful. A character whose reputation or self-identification hinges on not admitting something, absent any other reason on this list, is. Danny Zuko, I’m looking at you.)
    • Withholding affection out of anger is understandable short-term, childish medium-term, and abusive long-term
    • Use these if you want the character to look bad, of course!
  • Laughably ill-founded fear of rejection
    • There’s no stigma, nobody’s committed any major sin, everybody’s in a relatively healthy mental place, and the other person’s given no strong negative signs
    • And if you sat down and thought it through for ten seconds with a little bit of empathy, you’d probably figure out why they did you give that negative signal that one time

Pleaaaaaase, writers of romance and fanfic, understand that purely emotion-driven plots are really hard to do and try to avoid milking more tension out of a given situation than it can actually sustain. That is how drama becomes melodrama. At best.

Have I forgotten any common tropes? Anybody have examples of stories that break my half-baked hastily-crafted ill-thought-out rules?

“Orange Is the New Black” enters a landscape that labels non-thin bodies, at best, unattractive and, at worst, diseased, and inverts the resulting stereotypes with a slew of counterexamples: Classically attractive male guard Bennett does not, as he would on a lesser show, pursue a relationship with Maritza (Diane Guerrero), who Gloria jokes “looks like Sofia Vergara,”but rather with Daya (Dasha Polanco), who has a look not readily represented on television. Elsewhere, in a reversal of the oft-repeated trope, “fat woman gets rejected in her quest for the love of a thin person,” we see Tastee (Danielle Brooks) eschew the romantic advances of Poussey (Samira Wiley). Since the show’s first season, Lea Delaria’s character Big Boo has served as a kind of Litchfield prison sexual fiend – and while her aggressive-often-to-the-point of-harassment pursuits are not (and should not be) endorsed by the show, they do tell a very different story of how fat bodies can relate to sex than the one that says they should stringently diet and wait patiently to be skinny before they can even enter the arena.

These are just a few of the show’s dozens of three-dimension portrayals of women with bodies that fall outside the cultural norm. They all have complicated inner lives and diverse wants, goals and desires – both romantic and otherwise. Louis CK recently received praise for depicting a fat woman on his show who calls out his character’s cruel discrimination. But it’s not new fodder for television to portray a fat woman unhappy with her lot, and desperate for the love of an uninterested party. What is new is to see a larger woman pursuing sex and love with absolutely no reference to her shape, and no comments to suggest to viewers that her body should be considered anything but attractive.

Shirley Temple: The Child Star Who Wasn’t a Cautionary Tale

“Can the most famous child in the world grow up emotionally unscarred?”

Twenty-five years ago, that was the question that opened the New York Times news service's review of Shirley Temple Black’s autobiography, Child Star. It remains the question attached to anyone who could plausibly write an autobiography by that title—and recent examples, from Lindsay Lohan to Justin Bieber, have created a consensus is that no, usually, famous kids don’t grow up unscarred.

But Temple, who died Monday night at age 85, is the popular counterexample. After her prepubescent acting gigs, she went on to live a meltdown-free career as a diplomat, political activist, and mother of three.  That fact made her “perhaps the best example of a child star who came out the other side sane and used her fame for a great 2nd act,” said entertainment critic Alan Sepinwall on Twitter. Or, as writer Jeff Pearlman put it, she “was Justin Bieber with talent, taste, judgement and 0 inane tattoos.”

Read more. [Image: AP]
This Is How Neena Gupta, An Indian Scientist, Solved A 70 Year Old Mathematic Problem
A math problem that confused the mathematicians around the globe for 70 years has been solved by Indian math mastermind Neena Gupta.

Neena Gupta solved a problem which remained unsolved for 70 long years, until 2013. The problem is known as Zariski’s Cancellation problem, put forth by mathematician Oscar Zariski: if there be a field K and K1 and K2 be the finitely generated extensions of it and let x1 and x2 be transcendental over K1 and K2, respectively; now, if K1(x1) = K2(x2), must K1 and K2 be K-isomorphic? Gupta solved the conjecture with an ingenious counterexample.

Here is her original paper, dating from September 2013:

So, this morning I was thinking about how having debates / arguments in sociology is very similar to talking about things in mathematics in the sense that it is particularly helpful to have a bag full of counterexamples ready to go at all times. For example, if you’re talking about differentiable functions, it helps to remember the absolute value function is continuous everywhere, but not differentiable everywhere (so, continuity doesn’t imply differentiability). Similarly, if you’re facing off with someone who conflates genitals with gender, it helps to know about people who identify as transgender (so, genitals don’t imply gender).

Just having these counterexamples not only help you take apart arguments fairly quickly, but they help you remember the facts as well (does continuity imply differentiability? well no, since I remember abs(x). does having a penis imply being a man? well no, since I know there are trans women)

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

So now that we’re getting another, more intimate method of communication, I want to reiterate my (currently, at least) position on the subject:

Please feel perfectly, 100% free to take control of your social landscape.
And please don’t make anyone feel wrong for doing so.

Please feel free to block people for any of: spamming you, pressuring you, bugging you, attacking you, annoying you, being politically opposed to you, being politically neutral on a topic you care strongly about, being politically agressive on a topic you feel neutral about, have a URL you would really rather not see, having an avvie you would really rather not see, or basically any other reason.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be sad if someone whom I thought was a really interesting person blocked me for no apparent reason. Of course I’d be disappointed, and probably really want to know what it was that made them block me.

But I’d also want, even more than that, for anyone else whom I asked to leave me alone to just leave me alone.

And there are so many people here. There will be something.

R2-D2, the Heart of a Machine

In memory of Kenny Baker (1934-2016) 

One of the many things I love about Star Wars is that droids (and machines in general) are depicted as not inherently bad, but rather as tools that, just like the Force, and just like living beings themselves, can be used for both good and evil.

For even as we are shown us the mindlessness of the battle droids and the ruthless heartlessness of cyborgs like General Grievous, so too are we shown, from the very beginning, the shining counterexamples of C-P30 and R2-D2 – a pair of ‘machines’ that not only exhibit an extremely admirable sense of loyalty, but also possess a great capacity for Doing Good™.

Anakin Skywalker is the character perhaps most (in)famously known for having a great affinity for all things mechanical. To the point that some even see his need to ‘fix things’ as a manifestation of something deeply flawed or broken (or even inhuman) within himself. But though there is indeed an undeniable symbolism in Anakin becoming less and less physically human, losing pieces of his flesh and bone until he himself is fully imprisoned within a machine, I would argue that his affinity for fixing and modifying machines not intended to be viewed as solely a bad thing.

If anything, it originates as an expression of his own humanity. 

Even without taking into consideration the fact that, as a child, Anakin built C-3P0 from scratch as a gift for his mother simply in order to make her life easier, or all the various times he fixed broken starships using nothing but parts scavenged from crashes, saving countless lives in the process, there is one thing that always stands out to me: 

Anakin Skywalker programmed (or at the very least, encouraged) R2-D2 to have feelings.

It’s safe to say that Anakin loved that droid….and that R2-D2 ‘loved’ his master in his turn (much to the astonishment and consternation of many in their midst). And as General Skywalker’s most favoured astromech during the Clone Wars, R2-D2 saved his master’s life countless times in battle. But perhaps even more fascinatingly, even after his master was long-gone, lost within the “twisted and evil” machine of Darth Vader, this same droid went on to save the lives of the generations that came after.

While Vader is marching around being Supremely Evil™ and generally fucking shit up for everyone, this fiercely loyal little droid, this piece of Anakin’s goodness, is still out there, flying around the galaxy, keeping his beloved master’s kids company, and generally saving the day.

And that’s just beautiful. :’)

I do have to wonder how many people would continue to love Mary if she said absolutely true things like, “that was a shitty thing Sherlock did to you, John” or “now that we’re expecting a child, maybe you shouldn’t go on so many dangerous adventures.” I think one reason she isn’t accused of being a Mary Sue is because she enthusiastically supports and enables the male heroes and their relationship (for a counterexample, look at the way the fandom treats Sally Donovan for opposing Sherlock for rational, professional reasons). Mary is very much a wish fulfillment character, but she doesn’t threaten the characters the fans love, so they don’t complain.

I still completely love her, of course. Just something I wonder about.

Luc Sante on the bookshelves in his basement office:

The books are there not just because I esteem them and need to look things up, but also because they represent an external hard drive for my mind. That is, running my eye down the rows will refresh my memory, reframe my thoughts, alert me to counterexamples and lacunae in my lines of argument.

From The Writer’s Room.

Filed under: work spaces

The Extended Shoulder

There are a lot of guides these days on how to dress for your body type. Some people argue that shorter men do better in two-button jackets, as they have a longer lapel line (and thus give the illusion of greater height by virtue of extending those vertical lines). Others say that heavy men should avoid double-breasted jackets, as the extra bit of wraparound cloth can add visual weight. 

I’ve never bought too much into those arguments, partly because there are so many good counterexamples to every rule. Plus, most of those writers seem to rely more on rhetorical devices than actual evidence. 

There are two rule-of-thumbs I follow, however. First, shorter jackets make you look heavier than you are, which means they’re only ever good on stick-thin models whose shoulders are broader than their hips. Second, if you have a less-than-athletic figure, you may benefit from having a little extra room in the shoulders and chest. The second is known as drape; the first an extended shoulder. 

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Recap: Mad Men, "The Strategy" (Season 7, Ep. 6)


by Erika Schmidt

“What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family?”

Let’s talk about Peggy.

“The Strategy” had a whole lot of wonderfulness going on–and I want to talk about all of it–but I need to talk about Peggy. I can’t exactly say that, for me, it’s always been all about Peggy, because making a statement like that quickly starts my brain whirring, listing counterexamples of other characters that continually slay me. (This includes Betty, who, as Tess McGeer rightfully pointed out, seems to get short shrift sometimes, and yet remains a bottomless well of both fascination and humanity. It’s just, her people are Nordic, people!)

But it’s fair to say that Peggy’s experience tends to define the show for me. The moments when Peggy’s working something out–when she couldn’t get over Ann Margaret in Bye, Bye, Birdie, or when she told Pete about the baby (“I wanted other things”), or when she was stunned by Abe’s casual reference to their future children (watch approximately a million things happen on Elisabeth Moss’s face here for a master class in being both present in the moment and overflowing with history, not to mention wholeheartedly wanting wildly divergent things)–are the moments that make me hold my breath. When life is looking bleak for Peggy, the entire show takes on a foreboding quality. As far as Mad Men is concerned, where Peggy goes, so goes my heart.

One of my favorite scenes in Mad Men’s entire run happens late at night, at the old Sterling Cooper building. Forgive me, but I’m writing this with no prep time and the scene has no dialogue so it’s hard to locate (and I may or may not be mythologizing a bit here, so just go with it). It’s early in Peggy’s days as a copywriter, shortly after she’s gotten her own office. She’s working after hours. She comes out of her office and sees that she’s alone. She stands there for a moment, reaches her arms up and stretches. Then she lights a cigarette and strolls back into her office. It feels like it just might be the best moment of her life so far: the sea of empty desks, the silent office sprawling at her feet, and awaiting her all the difficult, adored work at which she is excelling. This is what independence looks like. This is the moment we dream of when we talk about doing what we love. This is how it would feel. To get to witness a moment like this in a character’s life is a gift we don’t often receive. And to live a moment like this is a gift a human being doesn’t often receive. 

Peggy seems to know that, and she gives up a lot to have it. The show doesn’t portray Peggy’s life as one big choice between family and career. Instead, it’s a series of isolated decisions: give up the baby and pretend it never happened, ask for the raise, ask for the office, move to the city, call Don by his first name, skip the birthday dinner, end the relationship, leave SCDP. She’s acted from a core passion since her first day on Belle Jolie, and it’s been a remarkable climb. “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.”

And now here she is, on the other side of thirty, creatively stifled, relegated at best to “the expert witness” (never mind that she has no husband or children—when it comes to maternal guilt and feeding a family, she’s “every bit as good as any woman”!) and, at worst, to a pawn in Lou Avery’s plans to get rid of Don. And she doesn’t have a family.

In that scene from last season, when Peggy realizes that Abe imagines starting a family with her, one of the many reactions playing on her face is joy. Which hints at something that’s always been present in her: a desire to be loved and wanted. Peggy practicing Ann Margaret in the mirror. Peggy doing the Twist for Pete. Peggy wearing Chanel no. 5. This impulse has never quite trumped her desire to excel at work—she’s rarely let it dictate her external actions—but then again, she’s never had much agency in her romantic life. Throughout her string of failed relationships, with the possible exception of Pete, she’s never been the one doing the ending. This seems to rankle her more and more as time goes on and the women around her get married and Ted chooses his wife and the flowers go to someone, everyone, else. It’s no doubt contributed to the increasing bitterness with which she operates in the office. With her creative life in a shambles this void in her personal life, the absence of understanding, becomes harder to bear. Each dissatisfaction feeds the other. Peggy begrudges Shirley her fiancée. She’s left desolate when her brother-in-law tells her he doesn’t like to leave his wife home alone. She watches TV with her little-boy neighbor (Betty and Glenn throwback? Yes please!). Lou “It’s nice to see family happiness again” Avery likes to pick the tags first and circle back to the strategy later, so that’s how she’s forced to do it now. That’s how her life is going. It’s fucking devastating to watch.  

Forget romantic love. The truth is that only one person has ever really gotten Peggy. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Matthew Weiner spoke about outsiders on Mad Men:

“…really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white. That’s the definition of success in America—becoming a WASP. A WASP male. … This is the story of America, this assimilation. Because guess what, this guy Don has the same problems. He’s hiding his identity, too. That’s why Rachel Menken understands Don, because they’re both trying desperately to be white American males.” 

Replace “Rachel Menken” with “Peggy Olson”, and you’ve got yourself a fine setup for the downright miraculous scene that “The Strategy” gave us last Sunday. (Seriously: I had the episode semi-spoiled when I saw a thumbnail of Don and Peggy’s embrace, and my brain could simply not accept that image as a possible outcome.) 

When Don first reenters the agency, Peggy is so buried in the new order that she doesn’t recognize his return for what it could be—the start of a new alliance—and instead sees it only as a threat to her already neutered creative life. It takes a big pitch, a hint of doubt (“It’s tainted because you expressed yourself!”), and a lot of liquor to break down the politics between these two and get them back together. But it happens, and it’s gloriously, deliciously believable. Following the advice of the great Freddie Rumsen, they do the work.

There is an undercurrent of profound sadness running through Mad Men that never really recedes. Whenever that sadness and its accompanying mess are allowed to exist out in the open, it brings exhilaration along with a strange and unmistakable relief: when Don pitches the Carousel; when he is finally forced to tell Betty about Dick Whitman; when he visits Peggy at the hospital; when he hangs up the phone after Anna’s death and sees Peggy awake, staring at him from the couch; when he changes tack during his Hershey pitch. Witnessing Don Draper in rare moments of straight honesty is a breathtaking release that reveals just how tightly we’ve all been holding our jaws when watching him try to keep the machine thrumming. Peggy often draws these honest moments out of him, with her near-desperate desire to find the best idea, make the best work, grasp what she deserves. She’s not graceful or subtle; she’s not good at playing games. It happened in “The Suitcase,” and it happens again here. She gets angry enough to drop the machinations and disregard the authority she’s been trying so hard to exert over him. She tells him the truth. “You really want to help me? Show me how you think. Do it out loud.”

From those lines follow some of the most raw, if understated, moments in the show’s history. The two sit and drink and brainstorm. Or, Peggy brainstorms and Don does what the best mentors do: he offers her the space to create. He asks the right questions, he listens, and as she “does it out loud,” he tells her simply, “Keep going.” The eventual work is hers, and it springs from the expression of a type of pain that’s both a result of and a departure from the isolation and discouragement we’ve seen increasingly in her. This pain is intense, draining, frightening perhaps, but blessedly clear. Honest. And shared.

“Does this family even exist anymore?” Peggy says. “Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV? Did you ever do that with your family?”

“I don’t remember,” says Don, not looking at her.

 And then, later: “Now I’m one of those women lying about her age. I hate them.”

“I worry about a lot of things. But I don’t worry about you.”

“What do you have to worry about?”

“That I never did anything and that I don’t have anyone.”

Equally shocking in print or onscreen, that last line from Don, delivered by Jon Hamm with eyes down and voice low, with almost no expression—well, that’s a whole other essay. I’ll just leave it at this: for a good time, go reread Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” with Don Draper—he of the slowly dying marriage, the confused sense of self worth, the vulnerable perceived value in the face of rapidly changing times and a damaged public persona, the ever-present longing—in mind. You won’t regret it.

The vulnerabilities tumble around between these two, until Peggy finds her “better idea,” and their unlikely slow dance comes together in the strains of “My Way” (Don: “You think that’s a coincidence?”). It’s the type of weird, calm catharsis that absolutely happens in real life. Bob Benson might not get what he wants from Joan (because of course she’s known all along and of course she doesn’t go for that, because she’s Joan fucking Harris nee Holloway and I want to write about her forever), but there is one platonic pair on Mad Men who will, we can now hope, “comfort each other through an uncertain world.” The work is good, the rest is bearable, and they’re not alone.

I wrote an essay awhile back about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and how it allows its central character, a woman, to find satisfaction and joy in her work and friendships rather than in a marriage and motherhood. Weiner mentions that show as an influence in his interview with The Paris Review, and I can’t help but draw the parallel in Peggy’s “better idea,” in that final scene at Burger Chef, where “every table is the family table,” and three people with messy, arguably lonely lives sit in contentment, enjoying each other and a good idea in a clean, well-lighted place.

Erika Schmidt is trying to do the work.
"Experiences attraction infrequently" doesn't cut it

Also, the always-great Ace Theist has another good post and you should read that too (if you want):

For me, what does “infrequently” mean?

It means not having any consistent idea of what kind of physical appearance would have a sexual appeal to me, with those anomalous instances of sexual attraction never amounting to any permanent or recognizable kind of preference that I can draw on (even though I can easily rattle off a list of traits that attract me aesthetically).  It means not being able to personally empathize with characters or real people who ogle and gush over sexually attractive people.  It means feeling slightly awkward and out of place when my friends send me pictures of “hot” people and express how they feel about them, with no counterexamples leaping to mind that would allow me to say, “No, they’re not hot, ________ is hot.”  It means there’s no variant of a generic human form that I can put together in my mind to make me think, “Ah, yes, that is the kind of person I want to see and interact with naked.”

I felt slightly repulsed just typing that, because that’s such a non-want for me, but I feel obligated to explain here.  If I were “just allosexual”, then presumably there would be some ability on my part to identify specific features that often cause or correlate with sexual attraction for me — ex. big boobs, round butts, muscular abs, deep voices, for instance, are some features that have some kind of sexual appeal to many allos.  Ask them what kind of people they (generally) find sexually attractive, and they can put together an answer.  I can’t relate to that.  Ask them to imagine a person — no person in particular, just a general anonymous shape — that they would think is hot, and my bet is they could conjure a sexy image easily.  I can’t relate to that.

In addition to the previous post: take a set with five elements and consider all possible 2-element subsets. There are exactly 10 such subsets. Now, we can define an interesting graph with the 10 subsets as vertices, by declaring two subsets adjacent precisely when they are disjoint.

The resulting graph is the Petersen graph, a very regular graph with lots of nice (and sometimes unexpected) properties. Donald Knuth said the Petersen graph is “a remarkable configuration that serves as a counterexample to many optimistic predictions about what might be true for graphs in general.”