04/24/16: Memories of Prince

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
Prince photo by Michael Ochs

Learning of Prince's death last week really shook me. This post is an attempt to express some of what he has meant to me over the years.

Albany, NY. May 1983. At a time when my experience of cities was almost nonexistent, my sister and I went to SUNY to help my mother pack up her stuff and return from her final year in residence at the university. The campus was warm and bright and full of people, and most important of all – there was a good radio station to listen to. (Back at home the only way I could hear rock & pop over the airwaves was to artificially boost the signal from a Burlington station by sitting on top of our console stereo.) I must have heard a lot of songs that weekend, but the only one I remember is “Little Red Corvette”. For me, it perfectly captured the feeling of being someplace exciting, new and bigger.

Spring 1984. The end of my first year at private school, on a trip to the Maine coast with new friends. I had a big crush on one of them, a fabulous boy with fashion sense and carefully styled hair. Like many of my crushes, this was a non-starter, not least because he turned out to be gay. But on this trip, I was still hopeful, and was thrilled the first night we were there when he took me up on the offer of a back rub. It says something about the naivete of youth that this did not play out as sexual at all, even though he had a copy of “1999” on cassette that provided the sound track for the experience. Of course, we were also in the middle of the living room with several other people present. There is a line in the song “Automatic” where Prince sings, “I’ll rub your back forever” which we all found very funny in the moment. Except my crush, who had become so relaxed that he fell asleep. (I give good back rubs. And to this day, my friend Beth and I like to trade them when visiting each other. Prince accompaniment is optional.)

Later on, I acquired my own copy of “1999” on vinyl. Back then, I would often listen to music as I was falling asleep. The key element of a slumber-inducing musical experience was to find a side that ended on a relaxing song – something in a minor key and/or slow and soothing. The gold standard for me was side two of “The Cars” by The Cars, which ends with the classic combo of “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up”. But side 4 of “1999” also became a staple. That record ends with the song “International Lover”, a crooning, soulful number that unhurriedly rolls out one of Prince’s truly bizarre love-making metaphors: the singer taking his paramour for a ride on the “Seduction 747”, which is somehow both his actual physical body and his well-equipped flying pleasure palace, which has taken his (female) lover inside itself and promises to fulfill her every bodily desire. If my parents had ever paid attention to what I was listening to (they didn’t), they might have been horrified by this song, but subsequently relieved to know that I never found Prince’s music to be arousing sexually – it was just too weird. But I did find it compelling, and in this case, strangely soothing, considering its subject matter. I think what really shone through for me in this song was that the narrator was fully focused on his partner. Not in a desperate or domineering way, but a generous, experienced and fully assured way: he was saying, “I’ve got this covered, baby. You can just sit back and relax.” It was almost like a lullaby, if you allow that a lullaby can contain a few orgasmic screams.

The record sleeve for “1999”’s second disc has a photo of Prince lying prone on a bed in a smoky, neon-lit boudoir, meeting the camera’s gaze with a brooding, come-hither look in his eyes. His shiny purple outfit has been removed and tossed to the floor; in its place is a sheet that covers most of his lower body, but leaves his ass exposed enough for it to be obvious that he’s completely naked – that is, except for the lavender gloves on his hands. Why is he wearing them? Who knows! And what is he about to paint with the watercolors beside him on the bed? A complete mystery! But there is no question that he looks FINE and very artistic.

More than a decade after this album came out, I read an urban fantasy novel by Emma Bull called “War for the Oaks”. It’s set in Minneapolis and focuses a lot on rock music, so it’s no surprise that Prince is mentioned a number of times. But he’s also inserted into the story as a character, in a way: one of the protagonists, a trickster faery named only “the phouka”, is described as looking exactly like Prince (when in human form, anyway). His clothes are also quite amazing. He even wears some paisley jeans at one point. But what really made me laugh in recognition was the moment early on when he pretends to be the main character’s one night stand for the benefit of her landlady. (It’s complicated.) Here’s the description of what she sees: “He was lying on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, facing the door. His brown skin was a shocking contrast to the rumpled white sheets, which were drawn across him to barely cover his buttocks. He wore absolutely nothing.” I thought to myself, “There is no way that that photo of Prince from “1999” was not the source of this image.” I was absolutely delighted to be in on the joke.

I have a feeling Prince would have appreciated it as well. Particularly on “1999”, there’s an atmosphere of playfulness and experimentation infusing everything, even the songs that aren’t downright hedonistic. With “Purple Rain”, he got a little more serious and (maybe?) autobiographical -- there was a new sincerity and emotion in evidence that I found gripping. To this day, whenever I hear “When Doves Cry” on the radio, I get drawn in to its masterful layering of sounds and voices that somehow ends up feeling stark and raw, even though it’s produced within an inch of its life. And “Purple Rain” might be the most beautiful and cathartic expression of sadness and loss that I’ve ever heard. To me, this album is a true classic -- despite the fact that I have no idea what doves crying or purple rain are supposed to be. Prince had an ability to put these obscure poetic images that had some personal meaning for him into his songs and make them convey something mysterious yet potent.

The album wasn't all serious -- the playful, impish element is still there on songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” (another “Apocalypse coming? Time to party!” rave-fest along the lines of “1999”) and “Computer Blue”, which begins with some coy hints of girl-on-girl action between members of the band (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Shall we begin?” “Yes, Lisa.”) But the real stand-out in terms of outrageousness is “Darling Nikki”, a story about the narrator’s night with a “sex fiend” who gets his attention by masturbating in a hotel lobby. Back in high school, this song was like catnip for naughty, rebellious types -- hard to get a hold of (because it was never played on the radio and most people’s parents wouldn’t let them have the album) and still somehow shocking no matter how many times you heard it. It resulted in lots of nervous tittering. Over thirty years later, with the aid of a turntable that can play records backwards, I’ve gotten the real joke, though: the song ends with a reversed vocal in which Prince sings about how he’s fine because “the Lord is coming soon”. It’s a hilarious tweak to the noses of the conspiracy nuts who thought that Satanic messages were being subliminally added to songs with backwards masking. “Darling Nikki” is all about a sexy she-devil tempting and seducing a man for a night of strenuous toy-enhanced pleasure. It’s not a subliminal message -- it’s right in your face! Instead, it’s God who’s hidden away. Good one, Prince.

His approach to gender expression was confusing, but in his usual way, bold. He wore makeup and outrageous outfits and seemed to identify with women, even as he was attracted to them. In adolescence, at a time when I was really having to reckon with the difficulty of being a young heterosexual woman who came across as “butch” gender-wise, he made me feel less lonely. I saw him as an example of what a male version of myself could be -- a gender outlaw who didn’t care about conventional wisdom of “what goes with what” or traditional symbols of identity. By god, he was going to make his own image, on his own terms. And like me, he seemed to get a lot of crushes on people. In his lyrics he ran the gamut of sexual and romantic attitudes -- sometimes dominant, sometimes submissive, sometimes confused, sometimes obsessive... jealous, uncaring, arrogant, heartbroken, loving. I don’t remember him ever expressing hatred or an impulse to violence, though. That might be his biggest challenge to masculine stereotypes, really -- he was all for peace and love, and lots of it.

Prince fell off my radar for quite a while when he was in his “unpronounceable symbol” phase. And it gave me pause when I learned that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness. It seemed like such a 180 from his previous existence that I was a little concerned about what might be going on with him. So I was both relieved and impressed when I randomly saw him interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and thought to myself, “He actually seems pretty normal in person! And... nice!” I realized I had never seen him just having a conversation with someone before.

In the past few years, I started to hear stories about his mind-blowing and epically long performances in random places. No one knew until shortly beforehand when most of them were going to happen, and they’d often not even start until after midnight, then run until almost dawn. He seemed to be on a mission to lead people through musical rites toward some kind of revelation. Everyone kept saying that he looked like he hadn’t aged at all, so it seemed like he would just keep going into the foreseeable future. I hoped that someday everything would come together, and I’d get my chance to see him perform live. Now that will never happen, and I am sad. Even more so now that accounts of his philanthropy have begun to come out, and I’ve learned what a quietly good person he was behind the scenes all these years. He is full of surprises, even now. Prince Rogers Nelson, musical polymath, sexy gender-bender, force of nature, and fabulous human being: I salute you. You changed my world, and I will always remember you.

12/31/09: Bye bye, naughties

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
I'm going to just say it: in many ways, this was a crappy decade. G-dubs stole an election and somehow remained president for 8 whole years; 9/11 happened, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the U.S. trashed its reputation around the globe with arrogant, irresponsible, and occasionally criminal behavior; and the economy became tired and shagged out after a prolonged squawk. There was a lot of upset and sadness in my personal world, too. Both my parents died, as did my half-brother and my beloved cat. My partner of over 10 years broke up with me in a slow and messy way. I had a nervous breakdown that it took me almost two years to get over. And some of my closest friendships senselessly exploded in flames.

And yet... if there is one thing I have learned this decade, it's that life is chock full of data of all kinds. At some point, you have to decide what you are going to focus on, because you just can't comprehend it all. And savoring the positives is healthier emotionally than dwelling on the negatives. New-Age-y platitude? Yep, but also true.

Putting on the rose-tinted glasses, I see that the past ten years had some serious good in them, too. I got my driver's license at age 31, ushering in a new era of mobility and independence. Several trips to Europe expanded my mind. I got a well-paying job with a non-profit company whose work I truly believe in. I had quality time with both my parents before they died. I bought a house that I love. The art of television truly matured and gave me some of my favorite shows ever: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, Firefly, Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Wire, and Mad Men. Social networking on Facebook and Twitter revolutionized my internet experience and reconnected me with many old friends. My ties to the world of feminist science fiction grew stronger, WisCon became my spiritual home, and I even got published. Connections with old and new friends and family delighted and supported me through hard times. And last but not least in this hardly-exhaustive list: Obama was elected president. That alone could restore one's faith in a just universe.

As the new year and a new decade approach, I am feeling hopeful. Goodbye 2009, hello future!

02/19/09: Mom's obituary

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
This is the text of the obit that appeared with slight edits in the Times Argus and Caledonian Record:

Joan Marie Brunelle Dawley, 76, died Friday, Dec. 12, 2008 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.

She was born May 25, 1932, in Montpelier, VT, the daughter of Edward Brunelle and Dorothy (Dunton) Brunelle.

She married George Siekierski in 1951. They lived in Montpelier, VT; New Haven, CT; and West Springfield, MA and had a son, Keith. They divorced in 1962 after a period of separation.

For several years she was a reporter for the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, writing human interest stories. There she met Lee Dawley, originally of Gowanda, NY; they married in 1963. After their move to S. Ryegate in 1964, she worked at the Caledonian Record in St. Johnsbury and the Orange County Council of Social Agencies. Lee was stricken with multiple sclerosis in the late 1970s, and as his condition worsened she spent more time tending to him. From 1985-2004, caring for him was her sole occupation.

Always an advocate of higher education, she was late to attend college herself. She studied at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT from 1976-1980, first focusing on the visual arts before pursuing a B.A. in Philosophy. She went on to a four-year graduate program at the State University of New York at Albany; she received her Masters in Philosophy in 1990. Studies in linguistics also led her to summer programs at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH and Kossuth Lajos Tudományegyetem in Debrecen, Hungary. Her engagement with ideas was lifelong, and she continued to read in history, philosophy, and neuroscience until her final hospitalization.

She was predeceased by husband Lee Dawley, son Keith Siekierski, brother Philip Brunelle, and sister Kathleen Haggett. She is survived by brother Robert Brunelle (and wife Jackie) of S. Barre, VT; two daughters, Andrea Sharp (and husband Steve) of Essex Junction, VT and Janice Dawley of Burlington, VT; and son Hugh Dawley of Burlington, VT as well as several nieces and grandchildren.

A memorial ceremony will be held at 1:00 PM in the Fellowship Hall of the S. Ryegate Presbyterian Church on May 25, 2009. Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the American Heart Association or the American Civil Liberties Union.


The Times Argus created a guest book that anyone is free to sign. I was surprised to see that my mother's childhood friend Claire Buley signed it soon after it appeared, even though they hadn't been in touch in decades. That tells me that out of sight is not out of mind for a lot of people, and that each of us leaves an impression on the world as we pass through it. You are not forgotten, Mutti.
Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
1949  1963  1988

My mother died on Friday, December 12. She was 76 years old.

I've been working on an obituary over the past week and wondering how to distill her life and place in the world down to a single column in a newspaper. It's hard to do, so I ended up copying the structure of the obituary she wrote for Dad in 2004. Lots of names of relatives, educational milestones, jobs she held. Those are all meaningful, because they highlight things she valued: family, professional achievement, the life of the mind. But they only hint at some of her most characteristic traits -- her shyness, her tough-minded skepticism, her strong sense of humor, her imagination.

I loved her very much. I will miss her.

11/30/08: Life lessons

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
This is a story about my engagement with the life and work of Robert Downey Jr.

It starts with a series of roles I saw him play in movies in the last couple of years. A Scanner Darkly (hilarious motor mouth double-crosser), Zodiac (drunken reporter sliding into the trash bin of life, delivers my favorite line of the movie to Jake Gyllenhaal: “You’re doing that thing, the thing we discussed, the thing I don't like, starts with an ‘L’ ” (i.e. looming). I remember quoting it for Art Sousa one day at work and him looking bemused), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (hapless petty thief drawn into a crime investigation in Hollywood; lots of back and forth funny banter with Val Kilmer, who plays a homosexual private detective nicknamed “Gay Perry”), then the biggie, Iron Man (I have a lot of misgivings about this movie. It is really violent and disturbing, the Afghanistan characters are simplistic to the point of stereotype, and the final battle between Iron Monger and Iron Man is a lame coda to the film. But… every moment Robert Downey Jr. is on the screen is redeemed for me by his light touch, line readings that are perfectly natural and funny and surprising in a genre that tends to sour brooding and leaden delivery. He’s not being ironic, either. It’s obvious he’s enjoying himself, that he loves the material). Tropic Thunder sort of an after thought. There is apparently a whole series of movies he’s done that focus on his powers of mimicry (Chaplin, Heart and Souls), and this is another in that vein. He is completely unrecognizable here, even apart from the “pigmentation procedure” (i.e. blackface), he speaks in a deeper voice than normal and enunciates in a bizarre faux-ghetto vocabulary and rhythm. The effect is striking, but not particularly worthy in itself. The one exception is the scene in which he pretends to be a Chinese rice farmer, speaking Chinese with a ghetto accent that even to me, almost completely ignorant of Chinese, sounds absurd and hilarious. The fact that the child drug lord he is talking to briefly seems to believe he really is Chinese proves to me that the “movie within a movie” is actually three levels down, that there is a movie within a movie within a movie. At the very least, his character has three levels. (“I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”) Talk about metafiction!

» Continue reading this entry...

08/05/08: Dispatch from Oahu

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
We're having another slow morning today, downloading photos off our cameras, blogging and recovering from our marathon day trip to the big island of Hawaii yesterday. Beth booked a trip with Polynesian Adventure Tours that required us to get up by 4:30 AM and didn't get us back to Oahu until about 9:30 PM. It was a difficult schedule, but worth it for all the ground we covered, and the cool sights we saw. These included: the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm and factory, an orchid farm, the Kilauea caldera, the black lava plains of Kupaianaha, and a distant view of new land being made where magma is spilling into the sea. It being daytime, we couldn't actually see any red glow, but the huge acidic cloud hovering over the outlet repeatedly pulsed with brownish explosions. Hot stuff!

The other big day trip so far was to the Polynesian Cultural Center just north of us in Laie. It was a total tourist trap, complete with staffers who took photos of each group to be sold later at $18 a pop, some sketchily differentiated "island" areas with timed programming of music and dance, an Imax theater, a buffet-style luau, and a final stage show titled "Horizons" that had some cool fire-juggling at the end. The weirdest thing about the place is that it is owned and operated by Brigham Young University -- a Mormon college with 95% Mormon students. Being a skeptical person, I kept wondering what religious agenda the place was trying to promote, but I never identified anything. It just seemed like a money-making venture.

The rest of our time has been spent in Honolulu at the zoo or various restaurants, hiking, swimming in the deliciously warm ocean at the beach, and driving on roads with names like "Kamehameha", "Likelike" and "Kalanianaole". It's all starting to seem normal. Nice!

I hope to post at least one more dispatch before we leave next week. In the mean time, check out the new Hawaii photo album in my gallery.

tags: %l

03/31/08: Giants among men

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
Last night I joined my sister, a friend of hers, and my nephew for a kickass performance by They Might Be Giants at Higher Ground. I saw these guys perform back in the late '80s when they visited my college, and I swear they look exactly the same as they did back then. The cool thing is, they've produced about 20 million albums in the interval, so they had a lot more songs to choose from. The show was great -- full of humor, energy, and unexpected wackiness. Highlights for my nephew included battling me with one of the giant foam fingers that were handed out before the show and joining the conga line that John Flansburgh berated into existence halfway through. There were not one, but TWO encores, the second of which included the ever-popular "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", introduced with an amazing Spanish-style acoustic guitar performance by Dan Miller.

And if the performance wasn't good enough, I felt completely at home amongst the nerdy crowd. I had a nice chat with Bill Simmon and Emily Stoneking, and saw a number of other people I recognized. And as I was driving out of the parking lot at 10:45, I guffawed at the sight of a license plate that said "TARDIS". Yep, pretty much a perfect night.
Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
Finally, we're officially out of winter. Yeah, we keep getting ice storms and other crapola falling out of the sky, but summer IS on the way. Thank Peep, because 2008 has been one of my least favorite years so far. Relationship distress, a nasty case of work, and an inner ear infection that gave me persistent vertigo all combined to give me an insomnia/anxiety/depression sucker punch disabling enough that I decided to take antidepressant meds for the first time in my life. I'm on the mend now, and seriously looking forward to sunshine, more time off, and having energy to write in this blog again.

So, in honor of the sunny Easter day outside, here's a link to this year's celebration of Just Born products, the 2008 Official Sacramento Peep-Off. The rules are simple: "You have 30 minutes to eat 'em, and then there's a 5 minute "cooling off period" to see if anyone is going to puke 'em up. [...] If you puke, you have to eat the puked Peeps to stay eligible." You gotta respect that "reduce/reuse/recycle" ethic.

tags: %l
Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
Today I received a Citi credit card bill with the second late fee in two months. The first late fee was definitely my fault, but I sent the second payment in 4 days before the due date. So I called customer service to complain.

The first guy I talked to said there was nothing he could do, because my account "didn't qualify" for a refund of a late fee. I asked what account DID qualify, and all he could say was that he didn't know -- he could only do what the computer system said he could do. Then he hurriedly signed off.

Five minutes later -- after applying for an REI Visa card -- I called back and got a different person. I started by saying that I was calling to cancel my credit card. When the guy asked why, I said, "Because I'm pissed that I was charged a late fee when I made an effort to send my payment on time."

The call was transferred to another person. The new guy said that he would put in a request for my late fee to be credited to my account. He couldn't guarantee anything, but he also asked my permission to sign my account up for a special offer of 1500 Member Reward points if I charged at least $300 to my card in the next month. In a skeptical tone, I asked, "And you're asking because...?" He reassured me that there were no fees involved, but he still had to ask my permission. "OK," I said, thinking, "I don't care about your fucking reward points, anyway. If you think this is softening me up, think again." He achieved his objective, though (at least in the short run): I didn't close the account after all.

After that call, I decided to look into the option of paying online (something the very first person mentioned) by creating an account on Citicards.com. The first step was creating a user ID. I chose "jdawley". It was taken. OK. I tried "janicedawley". It was also taken. Say what? There just aren't that many Janice Dawleys in the world -- did I create an account and forget? I tried to log in with one of my usual passwords. It worked, except the card that came up was a closed account with AT&T Universal.

Well... I have had a series of AT&T Universal cards, and I knew that they were acquired by Citi, so this sort of made sense. I tried to add my Citi card to the login account. A message popped up saying, "Sorry, but you must register this card at Citicards.com." Except of course, when I went there and logged in, it just brought me back to the AT&T Universal account page... The inescapable conclusion was that, even though Citi bought AT&T's account database and now prevent any user IDs from duplicating, they don't provide any actual FUNCTIONALITY for that inconvenience. In order to maintain my Citi card online, I would have to create an entirely separate login account.

So I tried to create an account. I got to page 4 of 5 and the layout broke. There was no "Next" button anywhere, even when I refreshed the page. So I called tech support for online accounts. I complained about the AT&T Universal account problem, then said that I'd gotten beyond it and was trying to set up a new account, only to run into a new problem. The guy asked, "Are you using Firefox?" I said I was. He said, "The site doesn't always work with Firefox, but if you got to page 4, the account has been set up. You should be able to log in now and sign up for the other options. Is there anything else I can help you with?" "No..."

And after all that, the online bill pay I was interested in requires that you give up your full bank account information. No fucking way!

I hate credit card companies!

01/18/07: Fitness

Category: Slice of Life
Posted by: Therem
It wasn't even a New Year's resolution -- I just felt like getting a gym membership. Our local YMCA is just up the street from my house and my employer offers a discount on the fees as a company benefit, so I decided to sign up there. The Y staff made it extremely difficult for me by misplacing my forms, giving me the wrong member card, and failing to call me back time and time again, but I eventually prevailed in signing up. Tonight was my third visit, and I'm feeling pretty good. My routine so far is to walk/run on the treadmill for 15 minutes, use the rowing machine at a strong pace for 5 minutes, then do some or all of the 12-machine Nautilus circuit. These activities were chosen sort of randomly -- they were what Orson wanted to do when he went with me the first time, and since I have yet to experience a real orientation by a staff member I've just been repeating what I know. I actually think it's pretty decent as an all-around fitness routine, but if I want to burn more calories I think I'll have to start using some of the cycling machines for a lengthier, lower-impact workout.

I really like the treadmill, though. I never would have predicted my reaction to this hunk of machinery, but I love how you can press the speed button and force yourself to run like the Six Million Dollar Man while seeing your distance, time, and number of calories consumed flashing on the display in front of you. I was really intrigued to learn that there's a certain pace at which just about everyone has to transition from a walk into a run: 4.5. It worked for Orson just like it did for me, even though his legs are a lot longer than mine. Weird!

The treadmill appealed to me so much that last weekend I bought myself a new pair of running shoes. For anyone who might be wondering where to buy some fitness gear in Burlington, DON'T go to Olympia Sports on Church Street. The selection, and more importantly, the sales staff, suck. Thank Peep my housemate Emily told me that the Ski Rack sells running shoes. As soon as I arrived, a knowledgeable guy named Matt measured my feet, diagnosed what sort of shoe I needed (support), and pointed out the treadmill they have in the store so I could give a couple of different styles a test run. I walked out 15 minutes later with a comfortable pair of shoes (Asics GT-2110s) and a warm glow from the customer service experience. You go, Ski Rack!

Monday after work I have an appointment for a Nautilus orientation at the Y, so I should soon be lifting like someone who has a clue instead of peering at the instructions on each machine and adjusting random levers. I'm hoping to get rid of the back and hip pain that's been dogging me for the past year. Signs are looking good already. Yay!