Kira, That Dopey Belt, and the Sword Girl Ghetto

Mostly I’m loving Teen Wolf‘s Season 5 with the Dread Doctors. (MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.) They are legit creepy-ass mofos and the “operations” they perform are frightening. I also adore the idea of a book that changes your reality after you read it. It’s a wonderful metaphor for what writers try to achieve, and bonus that it’s super spooky.

dread-doctors

This is what steampunk should look like.

But while the main storyline is tearing up viewer veins with adrenaline, my favorite character, Kira, is suffering some incredibly crap storytelling and treatment. Not totally surprising because she’s a female wielding a sword.

kiraswordbelt

The Belt

Jesus, this thing is stupid. I get it. She needed a way to carry the sword that wouldn’t bring attention to it. But think about it: how many inches around the belt line is Arden Cho? 26 inches? 30? Do you know how long the sword would therefore be? Your arm. Not much longer than your dad’s favorite bread knife. Compare that to my iaito, an actual albeit unsharpened katana, which is 40 inches. I mean, there’s dope, and then there’s dopey. This is the latter.

But whatever. Let’s just pretend this isn’t ludicrous. I mean, idiotic weapons seem to be the norm in film and TV these days. If they want to turn Teen Wolf into Batman Lite, fine. There are more serious problems with the character this season that reflect the typical biases against women with swords.

The Sword Girl Ghetto

Speaking as an experienced swordswoman, I’ve written before about how Kira is portrayed as a fancypants sword juggler that can’t hit the broadside of a barn when she should be the most powerful character on the show. (If you haven’t read my previous Kira article, you should before commenting on this one.) With so many fantastic, competent female fighters in the series, this seems strange. Why does she have this problem? I’ll answer that question in a minute.

In Season 5, before Kira arrives, Stiles and Scott discuss how Scott has hardly heard from her all summer. Despite the glut of life-threatening horrors they face on an ongoing basis, he isn’t worried? At all? Not even that she might have met someone else? The extreme implausibility of this boggles the mind. Sure, they haven’t been attacked in six months. But it doesn’t logically follow that Kira, too, experienced nothing on the East Coast.

She later reunites with Scott under the bridge before they head to the Senior Scribe event in the library. A creature battle ensues. She whips out this crazy sword belt thing and no one bats an eyelash. Who made it? How? And why does this thing not slice the living shit out of her belt loops? There is zero discussion of where the sword came from or who she was with in New York that could have made it. Maybe it will come out later, but so far her story’s gotten short shrift.

The worst part is that it’s clear during their fight with the creature under the bridge that she hasn’t learned a damned thing about how to use her sword over the summer. Unlike Scott and Theo, she doesn’t get in a single real blow. She makes two dinks as the bad guy brushes away her blade. No cuts. She then lies on the ground for the rest of the fight. While every other character on the show has grown, she still sucks.

Hold On There Little Miss

Thankfully, when they’re battling Tracy the Kanima, Kira’s sword finally makes effective contact with something. She cuts off the kanima’s tail.

This is the second time in three seasons that they let her actually hit something, and finally she did it on her own merit. Compare that, however, to Malia. Or Kate. Or, hell, ANYONE AT ALL. They’ve reigned in Kira so tightly, either it doesn’t matter that she’s there or it’s a disaster (e.g., their visit to Eichen House).

Then, just after she shows a glimmer of competence, she’s turns evil. She suddenly becomes this Kitsune Flambé that almost delivers a killing strike to Tracy. Scott stops her because it’s not okay in his book to kill the kids who’ve been operated on by the Dread Doctors. We don’t kill the victims. Fair enough.

But the message is clear: a woman with a blade must either be incompetent or straight up evil. There is no in-between. That’s consistent with the messages we get in most photos, drawings, TV and film dealing with women wielding swords. It’s getting a wee bit better in TV, but Kira is one of the weakest portrayals.

More to Come

Granted, it’s only a third of the way through the season. And believe me when I say how much I love the Dread Doctors storyline so far. They are fantastic villains, beautifully conceived and created by the writers and designers. I’m also enjoying Liam’s growth and the inclusion of his friend Mason. The actors are all very talented and fun to watch.

The show’s been accused of whitewashing its characters, and there is definitely some truth to that. However, I could totally relate to Kira complaining that she’s both Japanese and Korean yet she can’t speak either language. I experienced something similar growing up. My father was fluent in both Greek and English, yet never taught my sister and I a single word. The only connection I had to my heritage — besides, you know, relentless misogyny — was the food. We see the food thing in Kira’s family, too.

Still, I’d like to see her develop in a way that’s not framed by her relationship to Scott without demonizing her. They’ve been able to do this with Allison, Malia, Lydia — pretty much every other female teen on the show. Why not the girl with a sword?

I probably won’t get my wish, given the plot telegraphing, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed until the end.

Eden Underground: Alessandro Manzetti’s Devil is in the Details

I had really enjoyed Venus Intervention, the haunting, award-nominated poetry collection written by the Italian poet Alessandro Manzetti with the sublime Corrine de Winter. So, when the review request came for Alessandro’s solo collection, Eden Underground, I was happy to take a look.

edenAnd, oh, is it a long, dark look into an abyss of nightmarish images. I was not disappointed. Alessandro has enough imagination to fuel a carnival of depravity ten years long.

I guess the first surprise in this collection is just how colorful Hell — or rather Eden — can be. The first poem, “The Last Prey,” opens as such:

Eva has a snake tattooed on her arm
and a blue orchid in her hair;
fossil ovaries
are carved on the buckle
of her chain mail belt;
her hands are full of blood.

Vibrant hues erupt from the surreal landscape peopled by hookers, caged men, angel snipers, drug addicts, gravediggers and many more going about the business of the cursed. At times, the surrealism is intense to the point of breakdown, such as in “Lacrimosa.” But even when I was not sure what was happening, I didn’t care because the language painted such imaginative, aching portraits.

The girl’s face is streaked by black lines,
infinite.
They are her faded thoughts, watered down,
drawing the lines of a requiem,
a white pentagram
on a black background.

As beautiful as the poems are that come before, “The Cockroach King” starts a run of truly memorable, wickedly delightful pieces. “Dames de Voyage” might be my favorite with its twist on the scary doll theme. Do skip “Electric Monkeys” if you’re sensitive to images of animal testing, but it should disturb you. Alessandro clearly chooses each image with the care of a mad uncle building his most beloved niece a dollhouse of the damned. The devil is in the details, indeed.

As dazzling as this collection is, truth be told, by the time I reached “The Pawn Shop,” the number of hookers and whores in the poetry felt excessive. In the collection’s defense, we are talking about Eden, which is where humanity’s innocence was corrupted. So, it makes sense that madonnas are thin on the page. Still, there are plenty of ways for young women to lose their innocence. Eve’s dark side has knives with unexplored edges.

Maybe next time. Eden and its rotting garden will always be there.

Goodbye, Roger Rees: I’d Know Your Face in Ten Thousand

I heard the news that Roger Rees had passed away while I was in New York on Saturday. It was like a mule kick to the gut.

The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby

Back in 1982, my parents patiently indulged me, their wide-eyed child, as I watched The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, which had been broken up over four nights in a row. This was astonishing for many reasons, mostly because my dad’s soul mate was Archie Bunker, and he prefered movies like Friday the 13th and Bo Derek’s 10. (He once took me and my sister to see Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, which was straight up child abuse.) So, it was a huge deal that they sat with me through all eight-and-a-half hours of PBS as it aired Trevor Nunn’s production.

Roger Rees’s Tony and Olivier Awards-winning performance as Nicholas made me a lifelong fan. I don’t know if he ever landed another role that used his unique talents quite so well, but I continued to follow his work, ever hopeful. In 1999, I decided to create a fan website for him. It was crude by today’s standards, but it adequately reflected my devotion. I even started a Yahoo group so I could meet other fans. That’s where I met Jolande Hibels, who had this incredible collection of playbills for every stage production in which Roger had ever appeared. I linked to her astonishing Roger Rees gallery on my feeble website.

(I still recall the bitter outcry of the women on the Yahoo group many years ago when I informed them that Roger was gay. I suppose I should have broken the news more gently.)

Mrs. Winchester

As I wrote Mrs. Winchester in 1998, Roger was my muse. Mrs. Winchester is about a rich woman’s obsession with the dead and a poor man’s ill-fated love for her. I pictured him as Carl, the bewildered foreman who comes to work for Sarah Winchester as she builds her “bizarre yet beautiful” mansion, yet winds up falling in love with her.

mrswinchester

The script was a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival competition the next year (I think), but nothing came of it. It has since been optioned twice and placed in other competitions, most recently as a Finalist in the 2012 Shriekfest Screenwriting Competition. Everyone who reads it raves about it. I think Roger’s spark brings the story to life.

(Haven’t read it? Don’t worry. I’ll probably adapt it to novel as I did Mr. Wicker. Then maybe someone will realize what a brilliant fucking role Mrs. Winchester is for a late-50s actress. We desperately need that.)

When I First Met Roger

It was after an L.A. Theatre Works production of Lady Windemere’s Fan in 1999 that I made my way into the lobby to meet him. At first, I wasn’t going to do it because the theatre people very coincidentally had sat me right under Roger’s microphone in the front row, which made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. But afterward, as I chatted with a friend in the parking lot, I decided I’d be damned if I was going to let this opportunity slip away due to embarrassment. That just wasn’t my style.

On my way back to where I’d hoped to encounter Roger, I had a delightful, flirty encounter with Eric Stoltz in the elevator, which helped me relax a bit. I sat on a bench, waiting until he appeared. As he approached, I stood and introduced myself, explaining that I’d built him a fan website.

Eyes cast downward shyly, he asked, “Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?”

I replied, “Well, you’ve given many people like myself so much joy. I just wanted to do a little something to give back to you.”

He melted before my eyes, making all kinds of utterly charming and sweet declarations that I no longer recall. All I remember is that he signed my program and I left, walking on clouds. I didn’t even sleep that night, I was so pleased.

1776

RogerandMeTwo years later, he appeared in a production of 1776 that opened on September 4, 2001, here in Los Angeles with my friend Mark Ryan.

It was so much fun seeing Mark and Roger on the same stage. I’d asked Mark to vouch for me, to tell him I’m not one of those fans.

After the show, I waited in the courtyard and, to my terror, Roger emerged before Mark did. He recognized me immediately and was incredibly darling. He kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and kept telling me how wonderful it was to see me, asking how I was doing, etc.  I managed to wrangle a friend of his (Rick?) into taking a couple pictures of us with my camera. The poor guy, bless his sweet heart, had a lot of trouble with my camera. As he messed with the settings, the whole time Roger kept turning to me, still just as lively and happy, asking questions as to get to know me better.

For a long time, I was unhappy that it was more of a Roger photo than a Roger-and-fan photo, but you can see by my expression that I was delighted beyond words to be standing next to him.

(I should note that national disaster had struck the day before I was originally supposed to see this performance. They moved the show out to the following weekend. That night in the courtyard before Mark and Roger emerged, I met a young man who was friends with Mark’s agent. He’d lost two friends in the Towers, including one who had proudly just hired a staff of 45 people… He broke down. I hugged him, a total stranger, whispering to him my sympathies as he wept. What a terrible time that was. But what a perfect time to see 1776. Roger announced to the audience that they were selling signed posters of the show and that proceeds were going to the NYC Fireman’s Relief Fund. I bought one, naturally.)

Bad Fan! No Biscuit!

Years passed. Work and writing displaced the time I’d previously spent doing fannish things. I neglected the website, but I never entirely lost track of Roger’s career. I didn’t see everything he was in, but I tried. I was bitterly disappointed by Going Under, even though it had seemed as though someone had made a movie just for me, as BDSM and Roger Rees were two of my favorite topics. I was not remotely disappointed by his appearances in CheersThe West Wing, Robin Hood: Men in TightsThe Prestige and Frida. But to be honest, there is so much that I’ve missed, it’s ridiculous. I’d probably love his work in shows like Oz, Warehouse 13 and Boston Common. And so much more. He was a prolific performer, not just on stage, TV and film, but even in audio books.

His directing talents were formidable, as well. Bret and I saw Peter and the Starcatcher, which was written by Roger’s partner, Rick Elice, and directed by Roger on Broadway. The show had won a number of Tony awards. Unfortunately, the production we saw on tour in Los Angeles wasn’t quite our cuppa. (I vaguely recall it had something to do with the lead actress.) Still, it was entertaining (“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!”) and I’m glad we saw it.

Death

I didn’t know that Roger was ill. He hadn’t been ill for long, apparently. In fact, he’d just been the lead in a Broadway production called The Visit when his sickness forced him to leave.

On Saturday when the news came out, I’d just been part of the Thrillerfest Debut Author breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, where I’d gotten the chance to introduce myself and talk about my award-winning debut book, Mr. Wicker.

There I was in the midst of some of the most famous novelists of our time: Lee Child, Heather Graham, Sandra Brown, Charlaine Harris, and many, many more. The conference so far had been tremendous.

But later that day after breakfast, as I was sitting in the lobby between panels, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a photo that Mark had posted of himself and Roger in 1776 with the news of Roger’s death.

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Even though Roger was 71, it felt much too soon for him to leave. My heart broke even more deeply as I thought about Rick and his grief. They’d been together for over 30 years and married for four.

I’m glad I didn’t hear of it before breakfast. As the reality of Roger’s passing soaked into me, I could think of little else. Words cannot express the sadness I felt as the day wore on, knowing that such a special presence would no longer shine on the stage.

“I’d know that face in ten thousand,” Nicholas says. And it’s true. It’s a face — a voice, a person of eminent grace, humility, kindness and talent — that I will never forget.

Some Hilarious Additions to the Women with Swords Wall of Shame

Just when I thought things had died down, a Russian blogger recently discovered my well-disseminated post about why I hate most photos and drawings of women with swords. In that article, I give many examples of how photos and drawings tend to depict women (unlike men) as grossly incompetent with bladed weapons, far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. Anyway, as website activity has been crazier than usual around the article, it made me realize that it’s been two years since I posted that rant. I love that it still resonates with people.

Examples have only proliferated since then. Like this:

“Men go to battle. Women wage war – ON THEMSELVES.”

thewhitequeenduh

Seriously?!? This isn’t waging war, people. This is cutting the shit out of your own hand so that you can’t even wield a sword. Starz marketing really fucked this up.

I guess at least she isn’t poised to slit her own throat like in this one:

(Oh, honey, let me help you with that.)

Or trying to use the sword as a… chin-up bar? Oh, fuck. I have no idea what is going on here. Do you?

Look at my bloody sword that has the blood on it!

The crap I posted two years ago was good compared to this. Although, I should note that, in German and Scottish longsword fighting techniques, it was legit to hold the grip with one hand while simultaneously holding the blade somewhere up toward the tip as you fought. If I understand my sources correctly (and perhaps I don’t), the part of the blade where you held it was a bit duller. Regardless, you usually held the blade with a heavily gloved hand.

And then there is this.

 

::drops microphone::

::walks offstage::

::returns, picks up microphone::

HOW THE HELL DO YOU DO THIS AND NOT REALIZE IT’S EVERY SHADE OF STUPID? LIKE, EVEN ULTRAVIOLET, INFRARED AND X-RAY STUPID? Did they not notice she is slicing open her scalp? She’s parting her hair. Permanently.

This unbelievably bad photo originally appeared on the “What Do Nerds Like?” website. I guess what they’re saying is that nerds like to humiliate women? I doubt that’s what they meant to say, but that’s what came across to me. To be honest, I was also like JJ:

giphy

Just so you know, it’s not just swords. Take this photo for example, which is supposed to be marketing a corset:

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Arrow drawn and pointed at foot? Check!

Right hand upside down? Check!

Left arm on wrong side of bow string? Check!

Can you even see the damned corset? Nope!

There is no reason to pose this model with a weapon, especially if neither she nor the photographer know how to use it. Undoubtedly, somebody thought this would look “sexy.”

They were wrong.

Mind you, people send me loads of this stuff now. They almost never realize how bad it is. In fact, they often think it’s good. For example, when this interview with a “deadly” martial artist went viral, many people sent it my way. It was clear from her website that, while she claims to be a martial artist, she is certainly a model who poses in all kinds of appalling, dangerous (to herself) ways with her weapons.

In her interview, she talks about how women have to be tough, and this is how she poses — like a pre-1970 Disney princess who has never held a weapon in her life. (A sensei of mine especially condemned her website photos.) Some of her interview poses are so poorly formed, she would tear the tendons of her arms if she actually tried to attack. Even the way she holds a bo stick — more like a pool cue than a staff — she would break her fingers. Why not pose correctly? With strength? Was she afraid of looking too “angry”?

(If your martial art is what tells you to hold a bo stick that way, you need to find a new discipline. Stat.)

We have to be honest when we’re buying into the game of appealing to the male gaze at the expense of our power. We who know better — that is, female martial artists — have to do better than this.

(And, boy, am I going to get hate mail for that last critique. Hoo!)

I now leave you with this wonderful longsword duel between Bénédicte Robitaille and Amy Graham at the Montreal Winter Tournament 2015.

Bénédicte went on to take the gold at the 2015 Medieval Combat World Championships.

Kick ass, ladies!

On Mr. Wicker Winning the Bram Stoker Award

Wow.

I’m so incredibly honored that the Horror Writers Association chose to recognize my book, Mr. Wicker, for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. As I said in my speech, my heartfelt thanks goes to each and every member who voted for my book. It had very tough competition, especially from film director David Cronenberg’s Consumed and Josh Malerman’s Birdbox. Truly, all the books were excellent. I enjoyed the heck out of meeting Josh, as well as the other nominees, Michael Knost and JD Barker. I felt honored just getting to hang out with such a terrific group of people. I was already in the Winner’s Circle with these talented folk.

Reeling

But when they called my name, I was reeling. Truth be told, I was well into into my cups and enjoying the hilarious antics of poet Mike Arnzen at our table. Raw Dog Screaming Press should probably be called Raw Dog Laughing Press, as we were the most raucous lot in the room. We already had two Stokers sitting on our table as Lucy Snyder had won twice — once for Non-Fiction and then again for Short Fiction Collection. (I know, right?!?) Anyway, I managed to stand up with the help of my table mates. My shaky, tearful walk up to the podium was then supported by many hugs, handshakes and kisses from friends and colleagues along the way. If it weren’t for my friend Joe McKinney and the awesome Dacre Stoker who were giving out the award, I don’t know if I could have stayed on my feet. Thank you, both.

That Crazy Speech

If you couldn’t tell, the speech I gave was totally unprepared. My friend, the great science fiction writer David Gerrold who won his first Stoker last year, had told me to prepare something, but I didn’t. Maybe because the buzz was so strong about the other books, I lost heart. I don’t know. I do know that, from now I on, I will always listen to David because I forgot to thank Lisa Morton for her support, feedback and friendship all these years. (When someone on the Shocklines forum asked members in 2009 what their the top ten book choices were of the last decade, Lisa responded, “Unfortunately the best book I read in 2009 has yet to be published (MR. WICKER by Maria Alexander).”) I also forgot to thank the Dark Delicacies writing group for their support. Oy! Mea culpa for the lack of preparation doused in Manhattans.

Then again, as people congratulated me after the ceremony, some said it was the most heartfelt speech they had ever heard.

All A-Twitter

At any rate, I immediately texted my boyfriend. Next, I took a photo of the award and tweeted to my agent, the wonderful Alex Slater at Trident Media Group:

And finally, I sent Neil Gaiman a direct message on Twitter, to which he responded, “Well done!!!!!!!!!” Jonathan Maberry (who won that night for Best Graphic Novel) pointed to my Stoker and told me with the biggest smile, “That was an easy win.” Honestly, I’m surrounded by amazing people. I’m pretty sure I eventually stopped hugging him. I left a trail of lipstick marks on cheeks across the conference, that’s for sure.

You All Rock

What a fantastic weekend and unforgettable night. I so loved finally meeting in person JG Faherty, Angel Leigh McCoy, Stephanie Wytovich and Alethea Kontis. I feel like I’ve known and admired Angel forever. Bless her because, as she is also the HWA webmistress, she already knew I’d won while we were on the Horror in Gaming panel, and managed not to give away anything. Of course, Lisa Morton knew for almost two months. She is Fort Freakin’ Knox, man. At Los Angeles chapter meetings, she let nary an inkling slip past the usual mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She’s amazing, y’all.

I’m sure there are others that my jetlagged brain has temporarily submerged in the fog; I loved meeting you all.

Thanks again to everyone, but especially publishers Jennifer Barnes and John Lawson at Raw Dog. Heart you guys big time. And so does Mr. BBQ Butt.

The Violence Behind My Stiff Upper Lip

One morning as I waited outside of my kindergarten class at Berylwood Elementary for the teacher to arrive, a boy punched me in the mouth.

I had not spoken to him. I had not interacted with him at all. He just punched me in the mouth. Hard. I screamed. My face felt like it was on fire.

My father had just dropped me off. He witnessed the assault from the curbside. According to him, he jumped out of the car and yelled at the boy. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why did you do that?”

The boy responded, “I didn’t like her looks.”

My father couldn’t see the real damage. So, he left. When the kindergarten teacher finally arrived, she was unmoved by my tears, not even shrugging when I showed her my bloody tooth and pointed at the boy who did it. (She had always been an awful teacher, even prior to this incident.) Later that day, probably because I kept crying from the pain, there was an emergency visit to the oral surgeon. The boy’s punch had broken off my front tooth at the root. I remember the surgeon talking to me through his cotton mask, putting me to sleep so that he could extract the fragments that had shattered up inside my gumline.

The surgery was a success, but it left an ugly scar on my gum. Every single dental professional who has ever examined my mouth or cleaned my teeth has asked about that scar, as have many people I’ve met. I’ve practiced over the years how to hide the discoloration by dimming my smile, keeping my upper lip from riding up too high. People ask questions, you see. They always want to know what happened. And I rarely feel like telling them because, no matter how I phrase it, the incident makes me feel like a victim. Not just a victim, but someone who never found justice.

This happened back in the days before parents were litigious. The surgery must have set my parents back quite a bit, but they never sued anyone. They did repeat the story over the years, reinforcing my victimhood and subtly implying that, if he had liked my looks, he’d not have hit me.

I didn’t like her looks.

These days, plenty of men seem to think I’m attractive. (I just got an obnoxious reminder of that in an incident yesterday.) Not that it matters. Men commit violence against women — both domestic and virtual — regardless of whether they meet society’s beauty standards. Being attractive in anyone’s estimation far from guarantees future safety. There’s never any excuse, really.

Today on Denim Day, I don’t need to put on a pair of jeans to remind myself of the violence. All I have to do is to stand in front of a mirror and lift my lip. Like my scar, we don’t always see the violence, but it’s there, hiding in plain sight behind a well-rehearsed smile.

Reading, Signing & More at the 2015 World Horror Convention

The 25th Anniversary World Horror Convention is coming to Atlanta, GA on May 7 – 10. Atlanta may never be the same. Here’s my action-packed schedule, which includes a signing, reading and panel. I’m even presenting an award at the Bram Stoker Awards Banquet, where I’ll be nervously waiting to see if Mr. Wicker wins the Superior Achievement in a First Novel category. (EEEK.) See the following for more details.

May 8th, 2015

Author Mass Signing Event
6:30 p.m.
The Barrens

May 9th, 2015

Interactive Terrors: Developing IP for Horror Games Panel 
3:00 – 4:00 p.m.
R’lyeh
Moderator: Andrew Greenberg.
Panelists: Me, Bill Bridges, David Hensley, Angel Leigh McCoy, Spencer Reeve

Reading
5:30 – 6:00 p.m.
Innsmouth

Bram Stoker Awards Banquet
7:30 – 10:30 p.m.
Hey, kid, in case you didn’t know, Mr. Wicker was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award! I’ll be here for that, plus I’ll be co-presenting the award for Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection with the amazing Linda Addison. No matter what happens, it’ll be a blast.

Why We Need to Stop Saying That Something Isn’t “Christian”

As some of you know who’ve read my silly personal essay, I’m a recovering Pentecostal. When I was a teenager, I went to the Assemblies of God Church (just like Sarah Palin), and later continued onto the far less intense yet just as committed denomination of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my childhood before that, my family converted to Judaism for several years. I went to Hebrew school and attended synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.

I have a long history of biblical study. While I certainly am not as up on my verse quoting as I used to be since I ceased to be a believer in 1996, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in both Old and New Testaments. As a result, while imperfect, my understanding of what many would call The Word of God is better than average. And I recall vividly the intellectual Cirque du Soleil I had to perform each day to make sense of my life as I tried to follow Christ.

So, when I see a non-believer telling Christians what is or isn’t “Christian” — and I see it multiple times a day in my social media feeds — it’s clear that they have a superficial understanding of the Bible. Of course, the definition of “Christian” has been an apocalypse-inducing topic for 2000 years. But the surface definition that secular people are using is only creating deeper rancor in our discourse as we struggle with cultural issues like the rights of LGBTQA people.

Did Jesus Preach Acceptance?

The greatest secular misconception about Jesus regards The Golden Rule. He certainly did preach in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (New International Version)

We love this. It makes sense and helps us get along, creating a more compassionate society. It’s not necessarily acceptance, though, or even tolerance, which is what secular folk crave.

You see, Jesus profoundly contradicts himself in other verses, giving Christians the ability to construct a far harsher, more nuanced stance on social issues.

The Catch

Many non-believers don’t understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. You know Leviticus? That book with all the horrific commandments about stoning people to death for committing adultery and homosexuality? We like to trot out some of the more esoteric and ridiculous-sounding verses from that book as examples of its irrelevance to modern life, like how it’s an abomination to wear mixed fabrics or to eat shellfish.

But here’s what Jesus says about The Law in Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

By these words, Jesus was not only down with not eating shellfish, he was for stoning your daughter to death for adultery.

But What About “Casting the First Stone”?

This story (which was not even in the original Greek text) is told at the beginning of John 8. Most secular people are familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 7: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What most do not know is how that story ends in verses 10-11.

“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

11No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

That’s my emphasis. It’s clear that even when Jesus was hypocrisy hunting, he didn’t let anyone off the hook. Just replace “leave your life of sin” with “stop having gay sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a Hot Mess

I first encountered the crazy dance between Jesus and The Law when I was in my early teens, trying to convince my parents who had purportedly converted back to Christianity that it was okay to eat “unclean” meat like pepperoni. One verse would say one thing, but the next two would reverse the previous conclusion. Whenever I questioned pastors and Bible teachers, they sorted out the contradictions by making priorities. Who cares if you eat pork? Just don’t murder anyone or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time. That’s more serious.

So, Christians actually have quite the scriptural arsenal at their disposal if they want to create an argument, say, against gay couples adopting children or for denying employees health coverage for abortifacients (or what they think is an abortifacient, anyway). It’s perfectly “Christian” to do anything legally or morally that supports what the Bible says about certain human behaviors, even in the Old Testament.

That’s why secular folk are better off not playing the “This isn’t Christian” card in social issue debates. It doesn’t in the least, nor should it, shame a believer into thinking they don’t understand the Bible when they do — far better than the person making the accusation, in fact. You can imagine how infuriating and insulting that might be. Think about the last time someone contradicted your understanding about climate change evidence or even the age of the earth. We’re not talking about the same kind of data, obviously, but it’s the same reaction.

It’s totally legitimate to point out that people are clinging to some verses over others, such as eating lobster over stoning people to death. (For the record, even in my holy roller days, I was always a lot more about eating lobster. Not so much about stoning.) That’s getting to a deeper issue about biblical inconsistencies, but it isn’t about being Christian per se.

The Stronger Position

And I understand why this is so frustrating. The rest of us for the most part like to see the similarities in religions, to take the wisdom of each to create a more loving and peaceful place for us all. We seek tolerance in a world where religious conflict is eating us alive, destroying nations, ripping apart families, murdering LGBTQA people, and oppressing women and young girls. In our rage, our fear, we latch onto anything that might give us leverage in our discourse. But this, I’m afraid, isn’t it.

I don’t have any answers. All we can do is continue our quest for compassion and tolerance, to promote peace and understanding where possible, and to fight for justice for those who have been treated unfairly. Staying on our own turf and speaking about the benefits of compassion and inclusion rather than venturing into a religious debate when we don’t know the intricacies of that religion is the stronger position, giving us a more powerful voice.

And now I’m going to go eat some pepperoni.

(I’m also turning off comments. For the sake of my sanity and time, I have no interest in publishing the sort of debates that might ensue here. Thanks for your understanding.)

Did Bullying Kill Lynda Burrill?

I knew something was deeply amiss with Lynda the day we met in 6th grade at Buckeye Elementary School.

1982 Ponderosa High School Yearbook Photo

1982 Ponderosa High School Yearbook Photo

At recess, I’d taken out my hair combs and put them on the fountain in the school yard as I drank. When I looked up, they were gone. I told the teacher on duty what had happened, hoping someone would return them to her if they found them.

A girl in pigtails sidled up to me, her dark, ginger brown eyes as wide and bright as her lightly freckled smile. She held out her open hand, which cupped the two hair combs. “I found these. They’re yours, huh?” she said.

I took them from her, but before I could say thanks, she quickly added, “A friend would never have stolen them. A friend would find them and return them.”

A friend? Or someone so desperate to make a friend she’d steal something and pretend to “find” it? The whole exchange made me feel uneasy. Later, I asked someone who she was. “Her name’s Lynda Burrill,” another girl told me, and nothing more.

I stayed far away from Lynda after that.

Not that I would have come in contact with her much, anyway. We had no classes together in 6th grade. We then went on to different junior high and high schools. I went at Oakridge High School in El Dorado Hills, where I was relentlessly bullied my freshman year. But I had a few good friends, a couple of loving teachers, and my music, which saved me. I was raised a classical musician. I’d already played in both orchestras and bands. Music was my life. So when Oakridge lost its band teacher my sophomore year, the school district allowed me to attend neighboring Ponderosa High School, which had award-winning marching and symphonic bands. I loved the school. I had my first boyfriend, a hilarious band teacher, and zillions of geeky new friends without a bully in sight. It was a dream come true.

Lynda was also at Ponderosa. 

Because our last names fell into the A’s and B’s, Lynda and I shared homeroom together. While I had lost weight, she’d gained some, I noticed, and seemed to be an outcast. I’ll never forget how the boys tormented her, in and out of class. Girls, too. About her grooming. Her clothes. Her weight. Although nothing seemed that egregious to me, anything was apparently fair game. She looked exasperated most of the time and tried to dish it back as fast as they served it. Just before Christmas break, someone in homeroom handed her a wrapped gift. Astonished, she accepted the gift and opened it.

It was a bar of soap.

Her head fell on the desk into her arms.

My heart ached for her. I would have consoled her, as I had fellow outcasts at Oakridge, but I remembered those hair combs. I didn’t care what other people would have thought if I’d befriended her. What scared me was that her desperation for love was so profound that it drove her to do — or at least say — things that were seriously inappropriate. What else would she do to “prove” her friendship?

When Oak Ridge High School restored its band program the next year, I had to return. I then suffered some of the worst bullying of my school years, mostly at the hands of jocks. (One of my bullies grew up to be a professional baseball player and is now married to a former Playmate. Nice for him, eh?) After a particularly scary incident on the last day of school, I used the bullying as a legal chip with school officials to return to Ponderosa High School for my senior year.

I was thrilled to be back at my beloved “Pondo.” Marching band, jazz band, symphonic band. Pondo not only had a spectacular music program (and still does), but for me it was also gloriously bully free.

On August 24, 1984, just days before school started, I picked up my family’s copy of The Mountain Democrat to read the devastating headline.

Police Ask for Help in Murder Cases

…Denise Galston, 14, and (Lynda May) Burrill, 18, are dead. Their skeletal remains found in the Sly Park area were identified through dental charts and the announcement of their identities made earlier this week.

The parade of grisly headlines that followed revealed Lynda was the victim of a triple homicide. She’d disappeared on June 29, 1984 from a popular hangout called The Bell Tower on Main Street in Placerville, CA, where she was last seen talking with a 27-year-old man named Michael Anthony Cox — a man who, when he was 18, had allowed his 3-year-old half-sister to drown within arm’s reach.

(Motherfucker)

According to testimony, he’d once commented to another woman about Lynda that “girls like her needed to be eliminated.”

On November 29, 1985, Cox was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 first degree murders of three teenage girls — Denise Galston (14), her sister Debbie Galston (14), and Lynda Burrill (18) — with the special circumstance of multiple murder. He allegedly stripped and bound each girl before raping and stabbing them, leaving them to bleed out on the cold, dark forest floor. To this day, he sits on Death Row.

As I read the news articles, I realized for the first time that Lynda had already been held back a year in school before the hair comb incident. More fuel for the bullies.

When I think about Lynda, I remember a slightly heavyset teenager, pale, freckled, wearing a white dress dotted with flowers, hurrying across the campus to get to her next class. I don’t recall any smells, or that she looked significantly different from anyone else. Even her haircut seemed fairly de rigueur for the time.

So, I’m not sure why she was singled out. Regardless of her perceived faults, if everyone had been kinder to Lynda — schoolmates and family alike — might she have chosen better friends? Would she have still connected with a bizarre, cold-blooded predator like Michael Anthony Cox? She got in the car of a man who kept a buck knife in the visor to “prove” her friendship to him. We know how he rewarded her.

That desperation for love. The cruel denial of it.

I don’t know ultimately what confluence of events led Lynda to die on that forest floor soaked with her blood. Perhaps it was like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone played a role in delivering her demise. Family. El Dorado County officials. Ponderosa teachers. Her fellow students.

Me.

But I do know we failed. And we have to do better.

Innocent lives depend on it.

Life Hack: My “Life-Changing” Trick to Using a Toilet Seat Cover

And now for something completely different.

A pain article is going around complaining about “hoverers” – that is, women who don’t sit directly on the toilet seat. Three years ago, I developed a life hack to far more easily use those flimsy, slippery toilet seat covers. I posted it to my Tumblr. Since then, both people who read my Tumblr have told me the technique has changed their lives. It has certainly improved my own public bathroom experience in a major way. Here it is, step-by-step.

Step 1

Place the toilet seat cover like this on the toilet, matching the seat shape. You’ll find that the paper stays pretty well if you haven’t tried to tear it open yet.

Step 2

Sit down and spread your knees just a bit. Now gently tug on the “tongue” just enough to break it. Keep a bit attached.

(This is what you should see between your legs as you’re sitting. Hey, now.)

Step 3

Pee. Poop. Make horrific straining noises. Open Satan’s sausage shop. Text on your phone. Talk loudly to your grandmother in Svalbard to entertain and unnerve your fellow employees. And then flush. You never have to touch the cover again. It disappears into the water.

DONE.

YOU’RE WELCOME.