Little successes

Weird day. We got record-breaking rains last night from whatever of Ida hit New Jersey, and lots of flooding led to closed roads and accidents. Nobody made it to work on time, my boss eventually gave up on trying altogether, turned around and went home.

The Lessons by Cadwell Turnbull

Grabbed after hearing the author on Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Humans. It's a Childhood's End type story about an alien invasion by incomprehensible, super-powered aliens and the interactions they have with humans who have to struggle to survive. The distinctive elements are that it's set in the US Virgin Islands, and that while the aliens' motivations are mostly incomprehensible, the author has at least figured them out and slowly reveals some of them to the readers.

The combination makes the book a really fascinating exploration of colonialism and its long term impacts. One of the most striking early passages of the book is a brief history of the Virgin Islands and the way in which they keep getting invaded, until invasion just becomes part of the fabric of life. When the aliens land it changes everything, but it also provokes a sort of fatalistic communal shrug.

I liked the view of the Virgin Islands and I really liked the premise, but it was one of those books where I kept liking it intellectually more than I liked it emotionally. I just didn't connect enough with the characters, and Turnbull kept bringing in new perspectives in a way that made it hard to sustain a feeling. The story ends with the perspective of one of the survivors, a character we'd barely seen since the first chapter, and I feel like that's an interesting structural idea but it didn't really work emotionally to sum up the trauma of the past chapters. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is still my favorite Wayfarers novel but this was a delight to read from start to finish. If you like James White's Sector General novels, this is the closest thing I've read to one of them in ages (but way less offensively sexist). It's Chambers's first Wayfarers story that has no human characters, and seeing all of the alien characters interact and learn about each other with no humans around was really satisfying. The premise is that an accident at a jumpgate leaves a group of travelers stuck at a refueling depot for several days, and while they wait they try to figure out how to pass the time by socializing.

It's also... I dunno, people have applied the hopepunk/cozy label to Chambers's work, and this is definitely a cozy story premise, but while things mostly work out for our characters, this is a book that is at its most effective when it is angriest, and when it is most clear-eyed about the way the Galaxy grinds people down. Speaker and Pei's drunken argument about Aeluon culpability for Akarak exclusion from civil society is the center of the book; it is exquisitely rendered and heartbreaking. For a story premise that seemingly has no stakes whatsoever, Chambers manages to raise the stakes incredibly high. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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I'm working on a Natasha vid, which has led to me rewatching Civil War and Winter Soldier, and trying to convince myself to rewatch Ultron. Civil War makes me so angry, but a thing in particular that bugged me the most this time around is the presentation of the Sokovia Accords. "Here is the thousand page document," says Ross to the Avengers, "It's going to be ratified in three days. Surprise!"

Sorry I am still hung up on this, I know some of you have heard multiple rants about the Sokovia Accords.

1. Who wrote the Sokovia Accords and why didn't they consult with the Avengers while doing it? Surely there were public hearings! Surely there were high level government to government negotiations that can't possibly get done overnight! How could this possibly blindside them? And even if they could do it in secret, why would they want to? Nobody has the lived experience of being a superpowered person besides the Avengers [ and some villains they've arrested, a few weirdos, the Skrulls and Kree and Inhumans and the Hand and... but none of those people are talking to you), so surely their input on how the law applies to them would be useful? I just don't understand the process by which the Sokovia Accords were drafted.

2. What about treaty ratification and execution? There are literally dozens of treaties negotiated by the US president that Congress still hasn't actually passed into law. Okay, I don't know about dozens, I just know there's some numb... nope, definitely dozens. The ratification doesn't mean everything legally on its own, principles of national sovereignty means that the treaty doesn't say how countries actually enforce a treaty, it leaves that to each country's domestic laws. And there are over a hundred national signatories to the Accords, each has to figure out how they're going to implement the treaty. So they sign the Accords and then... What, they suddenly have full contingency plans for what to do in the specific scenario that an unregistered superpowered individual of US origin starts an action in Berlin in particular? There must be a million contingencies in that 1000 page Accord, all of it needs to be turned into legislative language in a hundred countries before you can start enforcing it.

3. Of course as I've written a bunch of times, national sovereignty doesn't really seem to exist in the MCU. Sharon Carter is working as a CIA agent in Berlin, helping to hunt down the Winter Soldier. Not under cover, just openly working as a CIA agent. Ultimately, it's US secretary of state(!) Ross (!) who supervises the capture and interrogation of the Winter Soldier. (Even though in the real US he wouldn't even be in the chain of command for such a decision, the Secretary of State is not a law enforcement figure, let alone an international law enforcement figure.) So the Sokovia Accords basically seem to amount to an international agreement that if anything bad involving superheroes happens, the US government and its agents will step in to try to resolve it. Why the hell would Germany agree to that? Did China sign the Accords, too? Russia?

Imagine you're China and you don't have any superheroes until Shang-Chi finally airs next month. You also have fairly shitty human rights policies and have been interning a massive population of Uyghurs in brutal re-education camps. And you have also been employing soft power around the world to increase your global influence and political power, building infrastructure across Asia and Africa. The Avengers have been acting around the world as super-police, with very little oversight. You are of course concerned that they will pop into your country to do things you don't want, like liberate your camps or free Tibet. Of course they won't, because the Avengers are tools of neoliberalism, but they could! Or maybe the Avengers will pop into your country to do things you want, like provide aid after a disaster, but they will interact badly with your bureaucracy and make things worse.

A diplomat from Wakanda comes to you and says "By the way, some countries are getting together to regulate the Avengers, do you want to participate?" China says absolutely, we definitely want a rule that says the Avengers can't come into China without our permission. So China starts looking at the drafts being circulated and sees that all superheroes, not just the Avengers, are proposed to be regulated. And China says "Wait a minute, we don't have any superheroes yet, but we might get some. We have lots of toxic waste for them to fall into! We have to be very careful not to agree to something that might restrict us from deploying our own Chinese Avengers into somewhere in Africa in the future." So they push for a carveout in the Accords that lets them have a Chinese Avengers that they can exert greater control over. [And maybe Nigeria says hold on, we definitely would like to be able to choose whether the Chinese Avengers or the US Avengers come into our country in an emergency, write that into the Accords too!]

And then they look at the Accords closer and see that they don't actually say that you can't send the Avengers to China, they just say that before you send the Avengers to China, you need the World Security Council to sign off on it. And China starts to worry that this Accord doesn't actually protect their ability to oppress their Uyghur population. So China pushes to make sure it has permanent representation on the World Security Council, ideally with a veto like they have on the UN Security Council, to make sure other countries can't just get a quorum and vote to send the Avengers in to free the camps. And the US of course agrees to this, because they equally don't want Steve Rogers to go off liberating equally evil immigrant detention centers. Of course this means the Sokovia Accords reifies oppression, but reified oppression is the name of the game with the Sokovia Accords and nobody can tell me otherwise.

This kind of detail has to be in the Accords or there would be no need for them to be a thousand pages long. I'm pretty sure the reason the Sokovia Accords are a thousand pages long is because the prop masters understand that international treaties are that long and they wanted it to have that look, but that didn't actually result in the writers thinking about what would be in a thousand page treaty.

4. On the other hand, in The Winter Soldier, Alexander Pierce needed approval of the World Security Council to execute Project Insight, which you would think he would just be able to build as a US defense project. So perhaps the US has also subordinated its national sovereignty in an absolutely batshit crazy way. The only way I can fanwank the World Security Council approval of Project Insight and preserve US sovereignty is to say that perhaps a) Project Insight only works as a defense project if it can be deployed both domestically and internationally to minimize gaps in its data network and b) therefore the US government won't sign off on deploying it unless they get pre-approval from international authorities that they will allow Insight to operate worldwide. Which is crazy, the US doesn't go seeking international authority before building weapons even when they will use them overseas. So maybe China's okay with the Sokovia Accords because they have other agreements that let them keep oppressing their citizens, and in exchange they promise to let the US keep oppressing its own citizens.

5. With all that said, the dumbness of governance in the MCU does not actually comprise a reasonable apologetic for Steve's position. People need to be subject to laws! (This is why I make Enlightenment Philosopher Natasha jokes) Ever since SHIELD collapsed, the Avengers have just been running a private military bankrolled by Tony Stark and refusing to obey any local laws they disliked. And nobody could stop them. So clearly the Sokovia Accords make no sense as a solution to this problem, but there has to actually be a solution to this problem. The Avengers have to agree to be subject to some laws regulating their military actions, or they have to be eliminated, it's pretty simple.

Okay, it's not simple, nothing is simple if I don't want it to be. The third option is the Avengers refuse to become subject to any jurisdiction, nobody can stop them, and the world devolves into a libertarian wonderland. And everyone is happy because the Avengers will stop any oppression from happening. That feels like an appropriate ending for this silly post. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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cw: covid

I've had an annoying allergy thing this whole past week, the kind of thing that often hits me in the summer, though usually not this late in the summer. Itchy eyes, runny nose, scratchy throat, an overall unpleasant time. It feels like allergies and I wrote it off as allergies and resolved to suffer through it, but since we're in pandemic times I took a COVID PCR test as a just in case- Negative. I didn't think it was very likely to be COVID- no fever, none of the other most commonly listed symptoms, and also I'm vaccinated- but it's a relief anyway.

I'm curious in general how everyone is feeling about COVID risk assessment/management right now. Incidence of COVID in New Jersey remains low, but has crept up a bit in the past week. Vaccination rates are fairly high, though not high enough to stop the spread, and they are not growing much anymore- the vaccine is readily available and anyone who was going to get it has had opportunity for the past several months.

The medical evidence seems to say that I am well protected from the serious consequences of COVID, which feels like it ought to suggest that I should feel fine going about life more or less as I did before COVID. In practice, I am still avoiding eating indoors at restaurants and I am still masking anytime I go inside a public building, though I have stopped wearing a mask at work. Also I am not avoiding public buildings as much as I was before. Most of my still-limited social time with friends and family in person has been outdoors, still, but when we go inside one of our homes I don't feel the need to mask unless they want me to. This feels to me like a reasonable balance of moving back toward pre-COVID behavior while minimizing risks in ways that don't impose too much of a comfort penalty.

But I've seen a wide variety of discussions of risk assessment from friends on social media, so I'm just generally curious how you're assessing things. A vaccinated friend just posted that they had decided not to go to an outdoor renaissance fair because of concern about the Delta variant, and to my mind that seems needlessly risk averse given the low risk of outdoor transmission and the low risk to vaccinated people, but a) I don't judge people who make different risk decisions than me, risk decisions are personal and hard and b) maybe there's information they have that I don't, it's so hard to keep on top of all the latest information. And the situation is specific enough to regions that it's hard to look to national experts for guidance.

[personal profile] baranduin linked to an interesting Slate article about how to think about the risks right now, and apparently they came out of it with the conclusion "If you've stopped wearing masks indoors, get them back on."... Meanwhile I read the same article and came out of it thinking maybe I'm wearing my mask too much, maybe I'm fine going into a grocery store unmasked.

All of these things ought to be basically rational calculations, made difficult only by uncertainty in the data, but of course they're not, they're extremely emotional decisions about our safety, and also they're needlessly entangled with identity questions like am I a Republican or a Democrat.

I'm curious if there are any milestones you're considering, either timewise or casewise. Are you at "I'll be fine to start eating indoors in September once temperatures cool, but right now with the weather being so warm there's no real reason to insist on not eating outdoors?" Are you at "I need local cases to be below a certain threshold for a month before I relax my guard on public gatherings over a hundred people?" Are you planning to keep turtling until there's zero cases in your area?

There's no wrong answers, I'm just curious. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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Black Widow

I really enjoyed it! I will say that it seemed sort of like they, in typical Marvel mode, held some stuff back for a sequel, and it's not clear that there will be a Black Widow 2, so I think that's a big part of why there's been some dissatisfaction from fans about how the movie tried to tell Natasha's story.

The Red Room was dissatisfyingly handwavy in a specific way I dislike. I hate it when Marvel movies (and other things... Leverage: Redemption has earned a bit of my ire for this recently) construct evil government institutions and then assign the blame for them not to structural issues but to one specific evil operator who controls the government institution. [I particularly hate this with regard to HYDRA in TFA. HYDRA is presented as evil because of the darkness of the Red Skull, not because, you know, the Nazis were an evil institution. And as a counter to this, TWS is particularly good at showing that evil institutions are about institutional rot, not about individual bad guys.] Dreykov is a weak point in the movie not only because he's not that interesting a character, but because he undermines any government criticism that goes deeper than single points of failure.

The Red Room resonates with an understanding of the USSR as being systematically abusive of individual rights and liberties, and creating a massive infrastructure of surveillance and control of its own citizens. Yet the Red Room of Black Widow is literally untethered from the mother soil of Russia, floating above it in its own version of SHIELD/HYDRA's monstrous helicarriers. It was supposed to have been destroyed when Natasha assassinated Dreykov a decade earlier, because Dreykov was the Red Room's single point of failure, the reason why it was evil. Dreykov, however, secretly survived, and with him the institution. This undermines that understanding of the USSRs', and Russian successors' approach to liberty. It acts like a single bullet, or single self-destruct sequence, is sufficient to free the Black Widows and now that Dreykov is gone and the antidote administered, all the work that is needed to protect them is at the one on one level. The Red Room exists because the mass of people in power in Russia, who want to remain in power, find it a valuable tool and have no moral qualms about creating it or using it- not because Dreykov exists. Killing Dreykov is not how you destroy the Red Room. Might be fun, though.

I realize that you can't just end every Marvel movie with "and then institutional kyriarchy undermined the superheroes' victory", true as it ought to be, but there's more that can be done here. There's a trope in Batman stories that you never see in the MCU that I think would go a ways to address some of this problem: the trope of the One Good Politician that Batman Must Protect until the Key Vote. It's a superproblematic trope on its own terms that ought to be subverted more (The Cape was really good at subverting it, it's one of the reasons I loved The Cape), but it would be helpful on occasion to end a Marvel movie with "And then institutional kyriarchy tried to undermine the superheroes' victory, but the good guys made plans to fight back using the tools of political organization." Again, TWS ended with that and it's why it's one of my favorite Marvel movies. It's also a thing in Iron Man 3, another movie I am very fond of.

But I'm doing that thing where I really enjoyed a piece of media and therefore I dissect it in way too much detail until it starts to look like I didn't enjoy it.

But the sisterly relationship between Natasha and Yelena was instantaneously perfect and filled out Natasha so well. The vest scene might be my favorite scene in the movie. The thing is that Natasha sets off her sister probably inadvertently, but she knows instantly how to defuse her sister's anger anytime it's about to flare up, in complicated and nonstandard ways that are specific to who she is as a person. So she inadvertently insults the vest and then covers herself so seamlessly and it's both teasing and also emotional labor at the same time. It shows how good Natasha is at People in general but it also is about Being Sisters. And by Being Sisters with Yelena in that moment, when she is grappling with learning about the mind control and how she has let her sister down, she signals to Yelena that at some level Natasha still recognizes the little girl in Yelena as being the same person she always was... which MUST be a thing Yelena is anxious about.

And the vest is such a banal kind of vulnerability for a formerly brainwashed super-assassin to open up about. Yelena is saying to Natasha "I trust you so much that my smalltalk with you will be honest" !! It's utterly heartbreaking in what that says about Yelena's conversations with people, that letting herself be open enough to talk about honest feelings about clothing and how it makes her feel is a major step forward. But it is, and it's so sweet when Natasha, in response, lies to Yelena about liking if. They are super-assassins, they know Natasha doesn't actually like the vest, but Natasha appreciates Yelena's truth and Yelena appreciates Natasha's lies. Sisters!!

These are two people whose initial meeting in the film is equal parts hug and fight to the death, and it was delightful the way the fight choreography captured that, as someone who is a sibling and who has similar if less well-trained fights with his brother.

And of course this explains so much about how Natasha interacts with Clint, who has become a sort of surrogate brother to her in the absence of Yelena- a relationship she also expresses by trying to punch him- that's just how you do Being Siblings!

And David Harbour and Rachel Weisz were equally intriguing as ersatz family who have let Natasha down but clearly still have deep feelings about her. The spy family stuff in this movie was so good. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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Last night I went into New York for Puzzled Pint, which was held outdoors in Central Park. It was my first time in NYC in a year and a half, my first time riding a train in a year and a half, my first time seeing [personal profile] thirdblindmouse and another friend in a year and a half. Lots of new experiences.

Trains were less crowded than I remember, and the trip was very easy. I have sort of forgotten how to do New York, though. I took wrong subways (Got on the E instead of the C and almost ended up in Queens). I got disoriented and forgot what street I was on. It's weird, I have prided myself on being able to navigate the City really well, even long after I moved away, and I'm definitely not at tourist level clueless but I felt out of place there. The city is also different, of course, because the City is always changing. Ebikes were everywhere, even more than they used to be, and getting a sense of how to look out for them at intersections was a new challenge. Penn Station and other places have been reoriented for social distancing in ways that were confusing to me. It was all a lot of adjustment.

The puzzles were fine, but I would say that the story and theme were better than the enigma content. My teammates did more solving than I did, but I brought extra puzzles so after we finished the puzzle set I did a variety cryptic while my friend sat next to me solving the WSJ crossword, asking each other for help when we got stuck. It was really pleasant to sit on a bench in Central Park on a lovely summer evening and solve puzzles as the sun went down. Sadly, the organizers did a poor job of advertising, and we were one of only two or three teams to show up, but it was a start at returning to a favorite monthly ritual. Hopefully more teams will come next month. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

My Opera Subscription

I've kept rolling over my Met subscription as dates were cancelled during the pandemic. Eventually, I figured, the Met would come back and I'd still want to have a subscription, and in the meantime letting them keep the money was a small way to support the arts.

Anyway, it's looking like there will be a fall season, and I think I will feel comfortable attending. I got an email from the Met confirming my subscription, albeit cancelling Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride for tech upgrades.

At present, this apparently is my subscription package:

Fire Shut Up In My Bones
10/19/2021 7:00 PM

01/11/2022 7:00 PM

Ariadne auf Naxos
03/08/2022 8:00 PM

04/05/2022 7:00 PM

La Bohème
05/24/2022 8:00 PM

I do not remember selecting this subscription package, but it's plausibly something I would choose. Only one of the shows is new to me- I've seen the Met's Rigoletto, Ariadne, Elektra, and La Boheme. Rigoletto and Ariadne are two of my favorite operas, La Boheme is the most tolerable Puccini, and I guess I'm giving Strauss another chance to win me over with Elektra. The Gluck opera probably was part of what sold me on the package, but oh well, it all should be good.

But I am most excited for Fire Shut Up In My Bones, a Met premiere by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. I saw him play a mindboggling set at lPR a couple years back, and he is going to be the first black composer to have his work staged by the Metropolitan Opera. (As usual, no cookies for Peter Gelb.)

As always, I have an extra ticket, so if anyone is interested in joining me for any of these shows, let me know. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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It Could Lead to Dancing by Sonia Gollance

Full disclosure, I am friends with the author. But even fuller disclosure, I am friends with the author because [personal profile] freeradical42 said "I have a friend who's writing a book about Jewish mixed dancing and modernity, you two should be friends." So any bias I have as a result of our friendship is totally subsumed in the deeper bias I have because I'm obsessed with this topic. It was also delightful that multiple friends from other social circles messaged me to say "Hey, have you heard of this book? You might want to check it out."

But I still did not expect to have so many feelings in an academic book about literature.

The book is a survey of literature, primarily German and Yiddish language but also some English language, depicting Jews dancing in the 19th century. This is also a dramatic period in Ashkenazic Jewish history, as the period of Jewish Emancipation across most of Europe, the Haskalah and the rise of Reform Judaism and secular Jewish culture, the start of a mass migration to America, etc... Topics I have revisited on this journal again and again, we needn't rehash now. By studying the way mixed dancing (dancing between the sexes, dancing between Jews and non-Jews, dancing between the poor and the rich) was written about in that time period, the book tries to analyze the ways in which Jews negotiated the unsettlingly ambiguous nature of the transition to modernity.

It theorizes the dance floor as a 'space', which is a jargony way of saying, I think, that the dance floor is a physical location that has a set of canonical/tropey rules governing how people write about it. There are four dance floor spaces the book analyzes in separate chapters- the tavern dance floor, the ballroom dance floor, the wedding dance floor, and the (almost exclusively American) dance hall dance floor. Each has its own rules and protocols and each has its own anxieties and opportunities that are seized upon in literature.

So for example the book describes the wedding dance setting as the setting most constrained by religious regulation, because rather than simply being subject in absentia to the rules issued by Rabbis and other religious authorities, the religious authorities were often present as guests and witnesses and able to exert their authority directly. That doesn't mean, though, that in literature the wedding dance was the most traditional, but rather that as a literary device, representing mixed dancing at a wedding would feel the most thrillingly transgressive to readers. One of the books written about has a dramatic final scene in which an arranged bride's non-Jewish lover violently forces his way onto the wedding dance floor in order to dance with his true love- she dies in his arms of heartbreak. In contrast, the tavern dance setting is a setting outside the eye of religious authorities, where Jewish tavernkeepers serving a mostly non-Jewish clientele were frequently represented in literature as being unable to expose their children to the Jewish education that would serve as a counterbalance against the allures of the secular world- often represented through dancing. Tavern dance scenes are often part of stories about people drifting away from the Jewish people, sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly- the dancing represents unsanctioned connection, physical and otherwise.

The book emphasizes the physicality of dancing- it was seen as an opportunity for men to demonstrate their masculinity through feats of athleticism and grace- and how that worked to confer power on women, who had at least some ability to choose their dance partners. In a sharp contrast in a society where arranged marriage was the norm, mixed dancing became a tool that potentially enabled marriage for love. But it also became a mechanism that various writers saw as leading people astray, luring them away from appropriate partners and in some cases dooming them to poverty or unhappiness or suicide. It's not for nothing, the book notes, that European folklore is full of stories of fairies or demons enchanting people to dance to their death. The very appearance of forming an attachment that leads to joy, on the dance floor, may be ephemeral, unable to sustain itself off the dance floor. This can be because the dance floor is a mixing ground, throwing together people whose backgrounds are fundamentally incompatible. There are reasons why it was dangerous for Jews to have too much contact with non-Jews, and reasons why the social intercourse of men and women was seen as a dangerous import from the world of the non-Jews.

In one of my favorite passages from the book's introduction, an adventure in late 18th century Bohemia is described. The Jews were forbidden to have public dances because Politics and Anti-Semitism and maybe fear of Revolution, but they secretly organized a Purim Ball because JEWISH FOOTLOOSE and you can't stop kids from dancing, and then the police raided the ball and it was a major scandal and they arrested the Rabbi and did I mention JEWISH FOOTLOOSE? I am kind of overflowing with desire to see the movie of this.

These uncertainties about mixed dancing- when is it appropriate to reach out and broaden your horizons, when is it valuable to seek the fellowship of one's own community- are the daily struggles of Modern Orthodoxy, and It Could Lead to Dancing, among all the other things it does, was really good at creating a framework for thinking about those balances. Also, I really miss dancing with other people and I hope I start to get opportunities again.

It's also really good at doing close reading of literature, and I am filled with a list of books that I desperately want to read now, some of which actually are, excitingly, available in English translation.

Anyway, I can't give a reasoned review of this book but I loved it. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.

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One Day at a Time Goes to See La Clemenza di Tita.

Syd: I am so excited. I read that the part of Annio is a trouser role, a male part played by an actress in men's clothing.
Elena: Really? So this opera is gender non-conforming! Like you!
Abuelita: You make everything gay. Even the opera is gay to you.

Oh, Abuelita... Elena did not need to make opera gay. It's been like that for centuries. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID. There are comment count unavailable comments.