Thursday, April 1, 2021

Noise in the Middle: Movie Review

I've been on a horror movie kick for a while (as I've said before particularly here and here, I love a good horror movie, and I also think that after the last year+ of insanity, nothing really scares me anymore, or at least fiction doesn't scare me more than reality). I've been checking out every horror movie I can find on my various streaming services and, well, I've definitely watched some crappy ones. Maybe I'll blog about them sometime.

This evening, I watched Noise in the Middle, the story of a grieving widow and his daughter with severe autism, who seek out an experimental treatment (what appears to be transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy or something like it). What he doesn't realize is that the house he rents is haunted by an occult-loving sadist and the ghosts of the children from his poor house/orphanage that he bound to be trapped in the house after their death. Or something. It's not completely clear but it apparently involved branding the children with an infinity symbol and also the children killing him and themselves with a fire. Or something. 

The concept was promising - although I find the "kid with autism has special powers (in this case, is a conduit and can see spirits)" concept to be problematic, just like I found the "woman with dementia is actually possessed" concept to be problematic in The Taking of Deborah Logan - and the movie started off great. We established the background, got some ominous shots and glowing eyes in dark rooms. We also saw some really interesting symbolic imagery after Emmy's (the daughter) treatments with TMS, very Ring-video type images, which could have been used more fully in connection with the haunted house and the concept but sadly was not. We even had the "person randomly finds occult shop/enthusiast who believes the main character and helps them" trope used for more humorous and uplifting effect. 

In the middle, things began to drag and become more convoluted, which I thought might be used to tie in the symbolic imagery from Emmy's sessions, but sadly was not. The end was just a big old mess. It felt like the writer had a great idea, spent lots of time on the beginning, lost steam in the middle, and then had to just finish the damn thing by the end. The movie toyed with so many horror concepts (haunted house starts to bring out the darkness in/infect the father, like The Shining; seemingly random images have more concrete meaning for the mystery, like Ringu/The Ring; grief manifested as a spirit or entity, like The Babadook) but never really fully committed to any of it.

Overall, I'd say don't bother with this one. The beginning made me have high expectations that this movie would be good/meaningful/even a little scary, but I ended up with "WTF did I just watch and why?". 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Super Bowl Reactions

 I watched the Super Bowl tonight rooting hard for my Chiefs - I was even wearing a Mahomes jersey (full disclosure: it was supposed to be a Kelce jersey, since he's my favorite player, but due to a royal f-up by the post office, that jersey never arrived, so I was able to get a quick backup Mahomes, my second favorite player, jersey). I was disheartened that my Chiefs lost, but am happy for the Buccs to make an amazing comeback as a franchise (except you, Tom Brady, I still don't like you).

So my reactions:

America the Beautiful by H.E.R., the National Anthem by Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan, and the poem by Amanda Gorman were wonderful. Honoring our frontline workers and the message from our President and First Lady - beautiful. Plus the first female ref at the Super Bowl - all the feels.

The penalties were a bit ridiculous, and mostly being called on the Chiefs. It's ballsy to call pass interference on an uncatchable pass. I understand that many penalty calls in football are based on what we scientists call the counterfactual - what would have happened if a condition (such as, a defensive player pushing a receiver out of the way) was not present - but when a call equals free yards or another try at a down, they need to be used thoughtfully. The penalty calls felt very one-sided. Yes, the Buccs finally got their own "unsportsmanlike conduct" call as well as a much-needed "roughing the passer" (but it took 3 guys hitting Mahomes in much the same whiplash way that caused a concussion 2 games ago). They say homefield advantage doesn't exist in playoff games. I beg to differ.

I'm surprised at the hate I'm seeing about the Halftime Show by The Weeknd. I went into halftime knowing a couple songs by him, and finished it as a fan. We're used to these blow-out halftime shows with 3 big-name artists plus 10 high schools worth of marching bands and drill teams on the field, but in COVID-land, that's just not possible. Instead, we got an artist who was able to showcase choral and dancing talent while still respecting social distance and safety. The dancers wrapped in face bandages for "I Can't Feel My Face" was super clever - guys, those were face masks! (NOT JOCK STRAPS, as some have joked.) They were able to have dancers in close quarters wearing face masks in a way that made sense with the song. In fact, they looked so little like face masks that... see jock strap comment. I was super impressed!

In the second half, we saw a bit of the old Chiefs, but sadly not enough to score a single point. The Buccs' defensive line was just too good - I mean, they ran a blitz on every f***ing play, and our offensive line couldn't hold them back long enough to give Mahomes as much time in the pocket as he's used to. This is something to work on for next season. Mahomes is an amazing quarterback but he's used to hanging in the pocket long enough to survey the field, pick his receiver, and pass; let's work on decreasing the time he needs in the pocket. And let's work on an offensive line that can predict how the blitz is going to work and knock those guys down. Yeah, a team that blitzes on every defensive play is unusual, but as we saw tonight, IT HAPPENS! Practice defusing a blitz from every angle.

Also, WHY DIDN'T YOU SHOW US AN INSTANT REPLAY ON THE RANDOM FAN ON THE FIELD?! I wanted to see that again/closer up.

Overall, I'm sad the Chiefs lost and annoyed at the one-sided-ness/overeagerness of the penalties. I enjoyed the game, the commercials (ALL the celebs came out for those, including a Wayne's World call-back with Cardi B???!), and the performances. I'm happy for the Buccs and hopeful for the Chief's next season (I mean, winning Super Bowl last year plus being AFC Champs again this year is nothing to sneeze at). And okay, Tom Brady proved that a quarterback can still be good and (pretty much automatically, because we always honor quarterbacks and ignore the other positions - like how about TE Gronkowski?) be Super Bowl MVP at 43. You're on top, dude; how about you retire?

Monday, January 4, 2021

My Dark Vanessa: Book Review

Content Warning: sexual abuse, child abuse, and rape

Earlier today, I finished My Dark Vanessa, a debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell. The book is told by Vanessa Wye, a young woman who was abused by her boarding school English teacher starting when she was 15. The book spans 17 years, jumping between Vanessa's youth and adulthood. Before I get into my (slightly spoiler-y) review, I want to say: I loved this book, and I also have no desire to ever read it again.

As you can imagine from the title and brief synopsis, this a difficult book, as we hear everything that happened in the mind of a young woman who was gaslighted into believing she had all the power in situations when she had almost none and at the same time, that she had no power in situations where she could do something to stop the abuse. It's a deep and disturbing dive into the way an older man selects and grooms his victim, changing her thinking and behavior for decades, and convincing her that she's a willing participant, even when she describes very clear dissociation (being outside of herself) during the episodes of abuse - a reaction often seen in victims of child abuse.

The book also digs into two really key issues, that I haven't often seen explored or explored this well: 1. The narrative that women have "feminine gifts" that allow them to have power over a man, and make these men do things they wouldn't otherwise do. And 2. That coming forward is the only responsible thing a victim of such abuse can do.

The first issue (the "power" of femininity to take away men's agency) is such a pervasive part of rape culture. But this book also explores how this narrative has been romanticized to even apply to situations of a very young girl and a much older man, in stories like Lolita, American Beauty, and Pretty Baby. It is this romanticization and narrative that makes Vanessa continue her relationship with her abuser, Jacob Strane, even when it actively hurts her. He convinces her that he has so much more to lose than she does if their "love" becomes public, that he cannot help himself, that she has the power in the situation to consent or decline (even when he ignores her requests for him to stop and/or fails to ask for consent for very extreme sexual acts), and that, most of all, she is special because of this power she has. For a lonely girl, away from home for the first time, it's so easy to see how he selects and grooms her. But perhaps one of the most frustrating things is, even as I was reading and feeling what Vanessa feels, the descriptions and behaviors were so clear, I would shout at her as I read that there's some textbook-level gaslighting going on. It's why this is such a good book - that the author can give us those really clear cues while still telling the book in first-person, and avoid the "unreliable narrator" trope - and also one I hope to never read again.

This narrative of feminine wiles is perhaps ones of biggest issues we need to contend with if we want to do away with rape culture for good. It's a narrative that, on its surface, appears to assign all the power to the woman and none to her rapist or abuser, when at its core, it instead makes the woman powerless to stop (and deserving of) whatever harm is done to her. It's also a narrative that can be so easily spun as a positive thing when it is actually toxic and harmful. 

The second issue is a bit more ambiguous, at least for me, because before I read this book, I would have agreed with this second statement, that victims must come forward so that the abuser can be brought to justice and that others can be protected. I believed this even as a person who did not bring my own rapist to justice, something I was very ashamed of about myself. But this book made me realize just how tricky this issue is. 

At a surface level, it seems like a conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of many, and from a philosophical standpoint, the needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the individual. But framing it in such a way takes away the individual's autonomy, a major issue considering that the abuse/rape was all about taking away one individual's autonomy. And victims already feel a great deal of guilt and self-blame for the event; they don't need the guilt of believing they failed others, or that they are in some way responsible for the reprehensible actions of another. 

Framing it as needs of the individual vs. needs of the many oversimplifies exactly what the needs of the individuals are (privacy, self-care, fear of reprisals, and so on), while also making that individual an accomplice in how another person's actions affects the many. In the case of adults in positions of power abusing the people they should be protecting, no victim should ever be to blame; this is on the system that put (and often helps to keep) that person in power, and on all of us, for the ways (big and small) that we may contribute to these power dynamics and rape culture.

This book was very triggering for me (even though my personal experiences do not resemble Vanessa), and I'm still working through the emotions it's brought up. I was reminded of a book I read in college, Bastard Out of Carolina, which also details years of sexual abuse of a child. When I finished that book, I threw it against the wall. Fortunately this book didn't elicit that reaction, but I didn't have a super-positive reaction to the ending either. 

I'm still glad I read it, though I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone who might also be triggered, especially if they haven't been able to work through their own trauma through therapy or treatment. And I'll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Some Music for Your Holidays

Hey everyone,

One thing I've been doing during the pandemic is making music on my own. For our holiday season, I dropped my very first album: Winter Delights. You can read about the album and download tracks here or stream me on Soundcloud. I'm working on more arrangements (and upgraded my audio recording equipment) so I'm hoping to drop a full album early in the New Year!

And to give you a little extra something, here's a selection of performances from my choir's annual cabaret benefit, Apollo After Hours:

Sunday, December 13, 2020

A Follow-Up on Yesterday's Sexist Nonsense

 Unsurprisingly, I'm not the only one who found Joseph Epstein's op-ed enraging. I give you this delicious takedown from Amanda Kohlhofer.

A privileged white man with no post-grad education telling a woman with a doctorate not to use her credentials. How very original of you, kiddo.

To that end, let’s list Dr. Biden’s accomplishments:
  • She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware in 1975.
  • She earned a Master of Education, with a specialty in reading, from West Chester State College in 1981.
  • She earned a Master of Arts in Education from Villanova University in 1987.
  • She earned a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) in educational leadership from the University of Delaware in 2007
She accomplished all of this over the span of 32 years, all while becoming a wife, raising children, teaching at many different levels, running a non-profit, and accompanying her husband through multiple political campaigns. (And, who wants to tell him that not only has she earned all of these degrees, but she has also, in fact, delivered a child?)
Just as I did, Kohlhofer suspects this piece would never have been written if Jill Biden were a man. And even though Epstein's blatant sexism is very obviously jealousy over a woman who is more educated, there are definitely people who casually drop the Dr. (or refuse to even recognize that the title could be Dr.) among women more than men.

In 2011, I earned a PhD in Social Psychology. I worked for many years as a health services researcher in the Department of Veterans Affairs, where I regularly worked with PhDs, MDs, and some of those crazy smart people with both. We all called each other by first name. (Except for colleagues who had just earned their doctorate - we called them Dr. at every opportunity until they got sick of it and begged us to go back to first name. Why? Because earning a doctorate is a freaking amazing achievement!) In college and grad school, we all called each other by first name. Academia or medicine is not what Kiddo Joe envisions of a bunch of people calling each other Dr. It was all pretty casual.

BUT there are times when that title should be used, such as when introducing a panel of presenters at a conference. And it was very telling how the moderators would often introduce the men as Dr. So-and-So and the women by their first name. It's telling the number of times people have asked me if my title is Mrs. or Ms. in some of these types of settings. It's telling that when I worked at a hospital, people would immediately say, "Oh, you must be a nurse." Why not a doctor? (And even more interesting is when I was married, people would ask my husband what he did for a living but would often ask me if I work.)

Women, either with or without higher degrees, constantly have to work harder to prove themselves. Gatekeeping is alive and well, not just in gamers and sports fans communities, testing women to see if they're legit, but in pretty much any field. I've interacted with fellow psychometrician and data scientists who I'm sure would prefer to call me "Kiddo" instead of Dr., or who waste valuable meeting time explaining core concepts "for Sara's benefit." I once had a psychometrician describe a concept and then urge me to read the chapter on this topic in the recent edition of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence Handbook. I was second author of that chapter. 

And as Epstein demonstrates, gatekeeping doesn't even have to come from someone with the same background or credentials. It can be some dude with a BA writing in the WSJ.

Guys, women are exhausted with this nonsense. When interacting with a woman in a professional or academic environment, be aware of those little microaggressions, or the things you may be doing that make her have to work that much harder to be believed or respected. Introduce people with their titles. Assume women know about something unless they say otherwise. Stop wasting everyone's time and energy. And stop telling us to hang up our titles. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Sexist Nonsense in the Wall Street Journal

 I really wish this were satire, but Joseph Epstein's recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal is, sadly, a completely earnest bit of mansplaining and suspicion of the intellectual elite:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden ” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Epstein goes on to explain that he holds no higher degrees, other than an honorary doctorate. He talks of the hilarity of people referring to him by the title Dr. Yes, it is hilarious, because honorary doctorates are merely a beefed up way of thanking someone for speaking at a university, not recognition following years of hard work to demonstrate that one has earned a title that allows that person to be considered an expert. You see, that's what doctor means - expert. An M.D. is an expert in medicine, a person with a PhD is an expert in the subject of that PhD, and so on. Epstein's honorary doctorate is really more like the prize in a box of cereal. Yeah, he had to do some work for it, but nowhere near on par with the work Dr. Jill Biden did for hers.

Epstein also laments that doctoral requirements have gotten lax in recent years, which is rich coming from someone who has never attempted to earn a doctorate.

Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field. At Columbia University of an earlier day, a secretary sat outside the room where these examinations were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted.

Is he correct that the doctoral examination no longer looks like this? Yes. There is no exam in Greek or Latin, nor an oral exam of general knowledge. But that's because the structure of doctoral education has shifted. In the past, doctoral education was very self-directed, with candidates choosing a course of study and pursuing it mostly on his (or her - but let's be real, back in the day mostly his) own. Candidates might spend years lurking around dark, dusty libraries, looking for some groundbreaking thesis to pursue. At the end, it was necessary to show that time hadn't simply been spent trying to write the most off-the-wall contribution to general knowledge, but that the candidate had also learned enough about the field of study to recognize how their contribution fits.

Today? Anyone interested in pursuing a doctorate must complete a certain amount of coursework, some elective but much of it required to establish the requisite knowledge in the chosen field. After that, they must also complete candidacy exams, which may be oral, as Epstein describes above, or written, or some combination. The point is to ensure the candidate has the foundational knowledge necessary to become an expert in the field. Then - and only then - can the candidate propose a dissertation. Other than Greek and Latin, the requirements are much the same, and in some ways, more stringent.

Honestly, not only do I think Epstein's dismissal of Dr. Biden's doctorate is ridiculous coming from someone with a Cracker Jack Prize of a doctorate, but I also suspect that if Dr. Biden were a man, using the well-earned title of Dr. wouldn't be an issue.

Seriously, WSJ? It's these kinds of articles that make me question whether I should keep subscribing to you. It's 2020. Do better.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020


 Hey all,

It's been a long time since I've updated! Though I've commented a bit on the pandemic on this blog, I've mostly stayed pretty quiet. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has hit home quite literally.

I'm currently in Kansas City with my family. My parents are older and have a variety of risk factors, so they've been staying in all the time. My brother, who lives with them, works in an elementary school, and though he's always been safe and careful, it appears he caught COVID shortly before Thanksgiving. Other than a bad cough, he reported feeling fine. Late last week, my dad had a COVID test done in advance of a procedure, and though he also felt fine, his test came back positive. Shortly after, my mom got a test that also came back positive. They're both experiencing more symptoms now, like shortness of breath and fatigue. My test done that same day came back negative, but yesterday, I started to feel some COVID symptoms myself, mostly fatigue (which could be as much due to stress as COVID).

We're all very lucky that our cases appear to be mild, and my parents' providers are checking in with them regularly to make sure they're recovering well. After this week, I'll probably take advantage of my excess vacation time and take time off from work to rest and recover. I'm in Kansas City for the rest of the year, and thanks to my parents' huge backyard, don't even have to leave to give Zep his much-needed outdoor time.

Stay safe and healthy, everyone!