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I invented a pie! This is, I believe, the first time I’ve done this. (I’ve invented several savory pies, but ‘pie’ to me means sweet — sorry, I am an American that way.)
A few days ago, I made an Oregon Hazelnut Caramel Pie for Ryan (the decoration makes sense if you consider he rescued me from a dead car battery situation earlier in the week.) Since I habitually make pie crust in batches of two, this left me with a single crust to fill. I thought I’d make something I could actually eat. Hazelnuts smell like heaven, but could actually transport me to an anaphylactic afterlife.
I’ve been thinking about coming up with a salted caramel apple pie for a while. I adore salted caramel with a ridiculous, crooning love, apple pie is my favorite food, and “caramel apple” is a time-tested taste combo. However, I don’t so much…make caramel. Well, I tried once to make caramel sauce, as a spur of the moment thing. I made hard candy — very, very hard. This hazelnut pie I’d just made, however, gets to call itself caramel without any crazy candymaking step — and the science backs it up, since it’s baked at 350 degrees.
So I bought a few tart apples and got crazy. Sure, I could have looked up an actual caramel apple pie recipe — there’s one with pecans I could have modified to hypoallergenic in my adored pie cookbook, not too many pages from the hazelnut recipe! But I was feeling wild and reckless and gripped by the urge to create.
This pie uses a modified version of the custard from the Oregon Caramel-Coffee Hazelnut pie in Haedrich’s book, but uses apples instead of nuts and has a salt/sugar topping of my own creation.
Sea Salt Caramel Apple Custard Pie
One single crust pie pastry in a 9 inch standard pie plate (partially prebaked if you’re fussy.)
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, melted
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2-3 Granny Smith Apples
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2.5 tsp coarse-grained sea salt*
2 Tbsp salted butter, at room temperature (or melted)
*If you want it a little less salty, I’d try 2 tsp. Also, I don’t know how coarse sea salt gets — mine is La Baleine ‘coarse’, and it’s medium-sized flakes, not rock salt or anything.)
Do this first: Put out butter and eggs to warm. Prebake pie shell if desired. Reduce oven temp to 350°.
1. Whisk together brown sugar, butter, eggs, corn syrup, cinnamon and vanilla in a large bowl.
2. Peel and slice apples into wedges (I aimed for 3/4 inch wide — wouldn’t want to go under half-inch, since they get pretty soft as it is). 2 large Granny Smiths was plenty for me, even being a little picky about shapes of slices, but if you aren’t trying for a rosette, you could fit more!
3. Arrange apple slices in cooled pie shell. Pour custard mixture over. (“Standard” pie pans vary, so you may have a little left over.)
4. Bake 25 minutes at 350°. Turn pie 180 degrees and bake 15 minutes more.
5. Meanwhile, mix sugar, salt and cinnamon by hand in a small bowl, eliminating sugar clumps for even mixture. Add butter and rub together.
6. Remove pie from oven. By now, the apple-custard surface should be mostly gelatinous, if not solid in parts. Sprinkle your topping mixture over the top of the pie, concentrating on the apple slices.
7. Bake another 10-20 minutes or until center of custard no longer moves in waves when you poke the edge of the pan with your mitt (in my oven, another ten minutes on top of what I’ve suggested.)
8. Cool thoroughly — I ate mine refrigerated the next day, but some people like custard pie at room temperature!
I found it very sweet, but complicated, with the apple very well cooked so it matched the custard texture. There is quite a bit of salt, but I like that to counteract the sweetness — and I would not use any apple sweeter than a Granny Smith!
If I do any more variations, I’ll add the results here!
NB: I’m calling it “sea salt” because that’s what I used, and because if there’s a phrase that causes me to Pavlovianly buy ice cream faster than “salted caramel”, it’s “sea salt caramel”. If I’ve abused the phrase, I’m sorry — it started it.
“And the Yum getting Yucked is when you like something harmless — and ‘harmless’ is the trick here and leads to my confusion — when you like something harmless and someone tells you to stop liking it.”
This is, I am sure we’re aware, absolutely endemic to fandom. That version of the show is inferior to this and here’s why, I could write a whole book of reasons — that show was ruined when that person joined the creative team — why do you like that movie, it’s so stupid? Tearing down each other’s likes seems to be fandom’s favorite sport (too bad, Quidditch is way more fun to watch.) I have very, very, very much been guilty of this, and I’m sure I will be again, despite any good intentions I enshrine in this blog post. I hope thinking through the implications for this post will keep me on the straight and narrow.
I do think it’s worth a sidebar here: I, like Zefrank, emphasize ‘harmless’ here. I keep meaning to write a blog post about consuming and loving media that contains retrogressive tropes and attitudes (spoiler: all media does) and I do definitely advocate talking about that stuff — criticizing. But there’s a difference between saying “this is harmful, we should talk about that” and “that thing you like is trash.” It’s the difference between saying “Really? You spend time smelling glue? That’s…not really healthy. Let’s google up why.” and saying “Really? You like papayas? But they taste like vomit, and now I’m going to describe how disgusting they are in detail for like ten minutes.”
Good training for this sort of differentiation is, I think, disliking something terribly popular. When you hate That Space Show Series 4, and so do 75% of That Space Show fans, it’s really easy to get going on a rhetorical rampage, since you’ll almost always have backup and a cheering section. When you completely fail to grasp the appeal of Mr. Popular’s Space Adventures, you soon learn that actually, the fact that you don’t like Mr. Popular isn’t very interesting, doesn’t contribute to the conversation, and is best served by you avoiding Mr. Popular topics entirely.
And the point of this post: there’s one sphere where I think this ability, to suppress the inner grognard whose SAY MUST BE HAD, to skate gracefully away from the target instead of casting Internet Fireball, is particularly important. Characters of underrepresented stripes. Recent internet commentary on a character I really really liked reminded me of the horror of having to argue Princess Leia is awesome. This was in the aftermath of a post about poor female representation in Episode III where I wrote “I love Princess Leia. She’s one of the most important fictional characters in my life — probably the most.”
People, I have a bracelet with the letters “WWLD” on it. I made that bracelet, myself. As an adult. To remind me to be awesome. When you tell me Princess Leia is a shrill bitch, you tell me my best self is a shrill bitch. When you tell me she’s unimportant, you tell me I can never be important. When you try to talk me out of loving her, you are trying to talk me out of loving myself. Because I have been identifying with her since before I knew your name. (Guaranteed: anyone I knew before age 2 wouldn’t pull that shit.)
We live on stories, we humans. We eat them and digest them and turn them into muscles and bone. We build ourselves out of what we see, and when we don’t see enough of the people like ourselves, we resort to writing it ourselves. (See: a certain subset of fanfic.) If there aren’t characters quite like us, we distort what is there until it’s enough like us to go on. If the only character like us barely gets any lines, maybe we imagine she or he or they have a huge important story behind the scenes, if only you knew.
And having characters be like us is a form of privilege. I know that’s a fighting word in fandom these days, but it is. If you are a straight white cis dude, you have a million stories to identify with. You don’t like Indiana Jones? Try Luke Skywalker. Or Bruce Wayne. Or Jason Bourne. Or Jack Ryan. Or Harry Potter. Or Jack Aubrey. If you feel intimidated by hypercompetence, there are heroic everymen or sweet bumbling accidental heroes. If you got picked on in high school, there are the nerds made good, through genius, financial success or superpowers. There are shy heroes, chatty heroes, bookish ones and brash ones for you. This is awesome, and wonderful, and I’m so glad you have those stories. I love many of them too, even though I can’t inhabit them the same way1.
I have fewer stories. I go to an action/adventure movie praying I will like the love interest, because usually ‘heroine’ is an exaggeration. And…here’s the thing. She’s all I’ve got. You’ve heard of the Smurfette principle? There is only one girl. If it’s a team, she doesn’t even need her own identity, cuz she has ‘girl’! If I am watching a mainstream adventure/heroic narrative, and it’s not by Joss Whedon (or is Avengers) that girl is almost always the only one2. The Main Hero, the Deadly One, the Funny One…all dudes. And when that girl, that only girl in the world, is smart, self-reliant, opinionated, and a damn good shot with a blaster? I love her forever, for rewarding my optimism, for giving me a story I can make part of me without pain and adjustment.
I’m a grownup now, and it’s not going to give me much of a skinned knee if you hate my heroines (though, you know, shocking bad form, see above). But this world is full of girls and young women, and those characters they love aren’t just a yum you’re yucking: they’re good, nourishing food they need to grow strong3. And kids of color, gay kids, trans kids, have even fewer heroes to love, fewer stories to fold into themselves. Let the kids eat. Don’t tell that girl Katniss sucks. Don’t tell that black kid Miles Morales is the worst Spider-Man ever. Don’t take the food out of their hands because you don’t like it. You don’t decide how to feed their hunger. They do.
1 Let’s not get too far into literary theory here. Yes, I can sometimes inhabit a male character. But there’s often a rude awakening. “Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
2 Reasonable people can differ on whether Xena is mainstream. But there are of course more exceptions covered by that ‘usually’. I don’t think I actually wept with grateful joy when Toph joined the hero group on Last Airbender but I think I danced. Representation makes people happy. And lack of it makes them unhappy: I remember a heartbreaking story of a six-year-old Last Airbender fan who went to the live action movie and bawled because Katara wasn’t brown like her anymore.
3 Even when you don’t think it’s good for them, try to be delicate, encourage critical thinking, and listen: I have fought down my opinions and listened to a young woman’s reasons for loving Bella Swan, and gods help me, I learned something.
I am off series books. It’s been so for a time: my ‘to-read’ list on Goodreads is a shocking 260 books long, and might be longer if I hadn’t preserved it by the expedient of a ‘to-maybe-read’ list. Series addiction would send the thing spiralling out of control.
But here I am, finishing Book Two and chafing for the next. How did I get here? (Besides the exemption in my series fear for audiobooks, that is!) I have a sneaking fondness for Booker winners, so I was curious about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall already. The only thing I knew about it other than its Bookerness was that it and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, were about the reign of Henry VIII.
Now, I was rather interested in the history of the Tudors as a child, due largely to feminist-schoolgirl awe of Queen Elizabeth, but also due to morbid-schoolgirl fascination with messy history. I didn’t even realize at the time what messy history Henry VIII was following! Now, Henry’s story, his desperate quest for a legitimate male heir, seems to me haunted and beset by that of Edward IV, whose legally flawed marriage(s) created such a succession crisis. (See Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time if you need convincing that Edward IV’s overactive tendency to put a ring on it, not any evil of Richard III’s, overthrew his little son.) Anyway, I had a very shallow sort of knowledge of Henry VIII’s reign, just enough to school my family in “Divorced, Beheaded, Died…” and explain which queen was which when we visited England when I was 13. In college I learned a bit more by taking a class on Medieval and Tudor History of England.
I never went in for the recent fad on Tudors, however. There’ve been some very successful book series and movie adaptations as well as the HBO “Tudors”, but I couldn’t summon much interest. Elizabeth, after all, is appealing to me — complicated, cagy, iconoclastic and independent. Henry VIII? Choleric, wife-killing Henry? Just a stage-setter, an interesting little soap opera backstory for my heroine. So it’s possible I came at Wolf Hall with precisely the right degree of ignorance and knowledge: broad background in the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation, enough knowledge of the course of Henry’s marriages to appreciate foreshadowing and see the other shoe about to drop, but enough ignorance to be constantly surprised.
Mantel has chosen her hero so well: Thomas Cromwell, a low-born but brilliant man who rose to stand at Henry’s right hand. I haven’t read up on what’s known of his life yet (that might mean SPOILERS!) but he is a wonderful character for a smart, thoughtful novel (or two, or please soon, three!) on Henry VIII’s struggle for an heir. He’s an outsider but not: born in England but educated all over Europe. This allows him to see Tudor English customs as non-transparent, to show them to us and remark on them, without losing any credibility as a character truly of his age. He isn’t blindered and constrained to the life of the court, so this isn’t the familiar, gossipy soap-opera version of Henry VIII’s court intrigues.
Thomas’s life story is interesting, and his upwards social trajectory is appealing to a modern reader who is unlikely to believe in the divine right to rule or the intrinsic superiority of noble blood. His background in Europe and his interest in the Tyndale Gospel and the reformation of the Church make Thomas a big-picture thinker. And somehow, despite my semester of Medieval and Tudor history, this big picture is one that hadn’t really sunk in. Henry’s desperate need for an heir (and obligatory assumption that the fault was in his women, not in him) was not only a catalyst but an opportunity for many. Henry’s easily mocked desire to cast off his first/brother’s wife constituted a huge challenge to papal authority at a time when many were already chafing to throw off Rome’s yoke. Thomas Cromwell, early (and secret) Protestant, smuggler of banned texts, reader of the Gospel in English, is the perfect character to lead us through this foment. This is not just about Henry’s heir or Henry’s bed: this is the end of the Medieval. This is the cusp of a new world.
Mantel writes beautifully but often simply. Her style here, third person present and relentlessly Cromwell-focused (until the second book, she routinely uses ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell whether or not there has been another masculine antecedent, which can be a trifle confusing,) serves the story well, lending immediacy to these centuries-old events. The narrative inhabits Cromwell so thoroughly that his asides, his incidental associations, become part of the fabric. His memories, images or words, bob back up in my consciousness a week after finishing the book, as they bob back up throughout the first and second book. I can’t wait to hear his voice again in the third.
Also, how sinister and wonderful is the second book’s title? Bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies…
But this exchange from Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths cracked me up:
Hans (Christopher Walken): Martin, I’ve been reading your movie.
Marty (Colin Farrell): Oh. What do you think?
Hans: Your women characters are awful! None of them have anything to say for themselves, most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes, and the ones who don’t probably will later on!
Marty: [Clearly at a loss] Well…it’s a hard world for women, you know. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say!
Hans: Yeah, it’s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together!
Next time I hear the argument that horrible treatment of women in fiction is motivated solely by a high-minded pursuit of gritty realism, I’m going to see Colin Farrell’s clueless little pout-shrug. “Well…it’s a hard world for women, you know!”
It’s come to my attention that I haven’t made my position on Valentine’s Day clear: so unclear, in fact, that even my co-protagonist thinks I object to it. I don’t! I’m not anti-Valentine’s. I’m sort of mildly anti-anti-Valentine’s.
As long as you can get past the fact that two thousand years and iterations ago, it was religious, I think it’s nifty to have a holiday celebrating love! I just think the focus on romantic love is…weird and reductive. The way most romantic relationships go, you probably should be showing love on the regular anyway. But our family, especially our friends? We may not say that enough…or at all. It’s easy to be ashamed or tongue-tied about how much our friends mean to us. I’m all for another push to tell them.
This year, I’m taking part in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters Challenge, and a few weeks ago I happened across a really ancient sheet of stickers: the plain red heart stickers that my mom must have had a bulk supply of when we were growing up. We sealed all the valentines with them for my whole childhood, as far as I can remember. It seemed like a sign to stop being lazy and send some love out this year!
Because I am not the sort of person who likes to hear half a story myself, I don’t like putting others in that situation. Therefore, when I chose to read my novelette “Small Towns” at the SFWA Northwest Readings this month, I decided to plop the full text online for everyone to finish reading, whether they made it to the event or not! It’s a very different sort of story from “Conditional Love”, the other story I’ve made available online, and I like the contrast quite a bit.
“Small Towns” is a historical fantasy novelette, first published in the January/February 2012 issue of F&SF. Thanks to the kind offices of my co-protagonist Ryan Grove, it’s available as a web page or you can download the PDF or ePub file.
Here’s the teaser for those who didn’t make it to the readings:
When Jacques Jaillet was a small boy, he brought home a pocketful of sand from the seaside and dribbled it slowly onto the floorboards of his little room. He made long avenues and cottage roofs, rows of shops, garden walls, a church with a fragment of shell for the tower. Then, for no reason he could later recall, he took a deep breath and blew it all away, the shapes and the order, the grains themselves skittering under the baseboard, gone forever.
When Jacques returned to his market town in 1918, past his middle years, it looked as if here, too, a monstrous child had finished playing and had blown the town, the streets, the houses and shops from the face of the Earth.
Go and read the rest!
Somehow I’ve neglected to remark on it here, but if you are in Seattle or Portland this week, you should stop by and hear me read in the SFWA Northwest Reading Series!
And if you can’t come, there’ll be a little free fiction (to relieve a cliffhanger) online…stay tuned! Many thanks to SFWA and to Jim Kelly for this opportunity!
“By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world.” - Umberto Eco
“I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth” - Dylan Thomas
I don’t know who will read this, or if I’ll let anyone. So I don’t know who I’m writing for. Just to have written? Writing is so important to me that not to have written is a particular form of silence. And here, of cowardice. A surrender to that anxiety Eco speaks of — it’s worse when no one can write the narrative for you to read, when you have to make the meaning yourself.
I lost someone a year ago today. I haven’t talked about it…anywhere on the internet, really. I don’t feel like I own her story. Who owns the stories of the dead? I don’t think I have the skill to say any of the things I feel in a way that is too true to be trite. I don’t want to use her as a vehicle for my own self-aggrandizement, or fall into the easy tropes of illness and grief to save myself the trouble: she hated those tropes. She hated being forced into someone else’s story by illness, as if the illness got to rewrite who she was. I don’t want to force what she and those we loved suffered and have suffered since into a piece of pain porn. I don’t own her survivor’s story, either.
But on the other hand, I do own my own story. I own what she meant to me, and my memories of her. I own my mistakes and my learning. So I’ll take a stab, and maybe I’ll just show it to my family and my chosen family. Or maybe I’ll set it loose on the web, one way to insist that she was here, and it mattered.
I met Ace in college; she went to the art school nearby. We met through the man who would become my chosen “brother”, and her partner. She was tall, rosy, and bold. Weary only when she genuinely was, not in that cynical way: given to genuine enthusiasms — who cared what the fuck other people thought?
I didn’t like her. I didn’t understand her. I was deeply enmeshed in the constant and futile fight to control what others thought of me. Nothing so profoundly nettles a person like that than someone who seems not to give a fuck. She did what she did with a whole heart: ironically, one of the things she did was take to me immediately. She told me years later that she found me vivid and delightful the instant we met. Of course she didn’t hide it — why would she, except that it’s not what people do, being unabashedly charmed by new acquaintances? It undoubtedly made me more standoffish. My cowardly way of not caring what the world of non-geeks and cruel Muggles thought was to try to remain out of their notice. She was wild. She was a lit flame I was afraid to stand beside.
I barely saw her, through college and after, until we both ended up in Northern California, for the reasons you do: my partner’s job, her partner’s graduate program. I was profoundly lonely, every friendship I had save one suddenly long-distance. That one, luckily, was with my dear “brother” Mike, and she was with him.
I didn’t understand her, still, but suddenly I was ready to learn. I was older, I hope wiser, a bruised and jaded grad student being taught to turn an open eye and a listening heart to the world. Ace was surprising, exhilarating: she brought a horrible eighties leather jacket home from the thrift store and remade it fearlessly on the spot with heavy shears and safety pins. She smiled easily and widely. All of us liked to make things, but Ace in particular always had a project in progress. She made subversive photo-art about gender roles and raged about her consuming hatred for Bratz fashion dolls. She and I would compare tales of woe from our crappy retail jobs. I wasn’t taking amazing care of myself, and she and Mike adapted to the fact that when I came to see them at 4, after a shift at Starbucks, I would always have forgotten to eat since breakfast — they’d just plan me a meal. Ace was cuddly, completely unafraid of being silly and kiddish and affectionate with her friends. She was one of those rare listeners who makes you feel that you’re not only heard, but profoundly and unconditionally accepted: that you’ve poured out your heart and she’s caught it and kept it still and safe.
I had learned who she was and why she was precious by the time she got sick, and I loved her. I did what I could. Time wore on, and I moved home to Oregon and she had a couple years’ respite. When she got sick again, I found that “what I could do” had dwindled, and what was left seemed, on the surface, petty. I could be there, physically; I could be silly with her and with Mike, be cuddly and childish and present. And although it seemed like very little, I have never felt so profoundly needed in my life. It was terribly hard to leave them each time. I found myself, too, asking Ace for advice, talking to her about my own quandaries, which felt terribly selfish until I realized she loved it. Of course. I loved being any sort of help to her, and she loved helping me back.
I don’t want to make my Ace, so three-dimensional I can still feel the curve of her spine under my hands, into a paper saint. She was intensely human, and she had flaws like anyone else. She could sulk like a champion on occasion. She sometimes put comfort or instinct above the letter of doctor’s advice. She was hard on herself and sometimes too kind to tell you the whole truth about yourself. And as I try to list these flaws, as I try to tell you she was a human, who had ‘vices’ and made ‘mistakes’, I don’t even care or see them as flaws, they were just her, and I wish she were here to whine, or smoke like a chimney, or whatever. I want her here to tell dirty jokes and listen to my creative plans with way more attentiveness than they possibly deserve. She wove me a purse out of cassette tape, and fed me when I was hungry, and gave me goggles so I’d survive the apocalypse, and taught me to wear makeup in bold wild colors I loved, and asked me hard questions, and held me when I cried. I want her in the world, she made it better.
She was one of the most alive people I’ve ever met, elemental, hungry, vibrant, and she’s gone. I learned so much from her, from loving her, and even from losing her. But ‘I learned so much from her’ is a cliché that we use to smooth over a wound, and I don’t want to do that, to lie about the wound that’s very real, for all of us that loved her. Nothing I learned was worth losing her, or what she went through. I can’t live my life in any way that makes it okay that she’s not in it.
I did learn from her. Her audacity and authenticity, her unconcern about the opinions of all and sundry. I learned that the simple, silly things may be all you have in the end: the presence and closeness of people who love you. I learned that it’s beyond foolish to hide your love, friendship and admiration because of pride or cowardice. I’m a braver, happier woman because Ace was in my life.
And most of you? She didn’t get to be in yours. I’m writing this in part because no one who hasn’t met her gets to, now. I can’t change that with wishing or writing, but I can at least yell that she existed. She’s gone but we’re still here, Mike’s still here, I’m still here. I’m trying to make something out of that — a story, or a dedication. And despite what movies say, it’s not suddenly easy to be amazing and bright and remarkable yourself when you realize, as if you’d somehow never thought it before, that life is precious; when you have a memory to live up to or honor. You still have to do all the hard work of creating and traveling and adventuring and living. I don’t get a montage, I have to make a life. It’s been a year without her, and I’m not magically the woman I want to be. I am and will always be a work in progress. She was, too.
I miss you, Ace, and I’m grateful that I knew you.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about sexual harassment at spec fic conventions, and in fandom generally. A case of harassment at Readercon and mishandling of it brought this discussion up from a simmer. There have been amazing related posts like Captain Awkward’s response to two letters about creepy acquaintances, which did a great job of explaining the links between seemingly innocuous creepiness and obvious sexual threat. Another great one was John Scalzi’s Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping, which tried to address the defensiveness from many male geeks on the topic and show that not being creepy isn’t rocket science. That defensiveness is predictable: it’s a dynamic I, and probably most geek feminists, are familiar with.
This is all happening against a backdrop of gender- and race-fail in fandom, backlash against women in fandom (have you heard of “fake geek girls”?) and of course, the charming War on Women in the wider world.
A long time ago, I used to hang out on a discussion forum for gamers, in the general geekery section. There were recurring discussions about geek gender relations — about straight male geeks’ sexual frustrations, and about female geeks’ profound discomfort in many situations. In short, the same topic online fandom is mulling over now, with the same cast of characters and list of motivations and conflicts.
This is the metaphor I came up with then, to explain why I (and other women) get creeped out, and how behavior some men think is innocuous seems creepy or even threatening to the recipient:
As far as they’re concerned, inside every woman, there’s a tasty Sex Treat™, and there’s some way to get it out. Some combination of words, of behaviors on the man’s part, some situation will pop that box open and the treat will be his!
Like every belief, this one has implications and consequences. A puzzler may continue to try and try and try to get a woman to sleep with him, testing different approaches and permutations, sure that the perfect solution exists — when in fact, he’s just being terrifyingly persistent in hitting on someone who he’s already completely alienated. He may learn generalized techniques from pickup artist websites or books, which make perfect sense to him because they use the same sort of puzzle/treat logic — and then find that real women he interacts with don’t respond as he anticipated, or even get offended, when he tries out his new techniques. A frustrated puzzler may stay in a platonic relationship with a woman hoping to stumble onto a way to get the treat, when he isn’t interested in the friendship for its own sake.
And here’s the thing. While she may not know what to call it, a woman can often sense that a man believes her to be a puzzle box. He’s breaking Rule #4 in Scalzi’s post, “Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use.” He is talking to her, but thinking about how to get her Sex Treat™.
There are two big problems with the Puzzle Box model of woman. The first one you can probably guess, and I’ve just implied it when I note that women can tell a man’s thinking of them that way:
Women don’t like being treated as interchangeable, or as the means to an end, or an obstacle in the way of someone’s desire, any more than anyone else would. Most puzzler-types would scoff at the idea that they’re treating women as interchangeable, but no, the fact that you value the sex treat or the victory more highly if the box has an attractive exterior, or if it hadn’t been opened before, or if it was particularly tricky, isn’t flattering. You are treating a sentient individual as an instance of a game. It’s disgusting.
The second problem is a little more subtle, but its power is why I like this metaphor so much (besides the precise way it describes the feeling I get when a guy is talking to me but his brain is obviously listening to imagined tumblers in my locking mechanism).
Sex is not a treat, it’s not a prize: it’s an activity people do together. When a man (or anyone else) focuses on it as an object to win, he is constructing his sexual world in a flawed and unethical way. If all that matters is that he wins, that he finds a way of getting that treat out of that woman, then the quality of her consent doesn’t matter to him.
I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here, and I’m not trying to be vituperative: but logically, the Puzzle Box approach is on a continuum with rape. Each puzzler has a toolbox they use to approach a new puzzle box. One has flattery, pokes at self-esteem, dares, intense eye contact. One also uses pushing of physical boundaries, false teaming, buying her a couple of drinks, telling her she’s leading him on and owes him sex. One also uses the implied threat of his large and imposing frame, isolating her, getting her drunk. One also uses drugs, and social threat, and his strength and greater weight… You get the picture.
When a woman senses a man sees her as a puzzle box, she does not know if he is a harmless guy with some stupid notions, or a self-taught pickup artist steeped in internet misogyny but who has a rudimentary ethical compass, or a guy who will rape her if he has plausible deniability but not otherwise, or that self-aware serial rapist who posted on Reddit.
She doesn’t know whether he’s just going to annoy her with a constant attempt to load his save-game and retry with a bunch of corny lines and pushy suggestions; or stalk her on the internet trying to figure out the cheat code to open her pants; or grope her in an attempt to break her boundaries; or rape her. She does not know what he’s willing to do to get the treat. All she knows is that he sees her as an obstacle and her sex as an object. And why the fuck would she want to spend any time with him, even if he’s harmless, knowing that?
If you’re reading this and you have a puzzle box mentality, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’m not saying you’re a rapist when I say this mentality is part of a continuum with rape — I’m saying you’re part of a society which enables and includes rape. We all are. We don’t grow to adulthood in individual stasis boxes, creating all our attitudes ourselves. The idea of women as puzzle boxes — which is related to the ideas that women don’t actually want sex and just have to regulate men’s access to it, and to the idea of women as the sex class, the people whose bodies carry sex and mean sex — is embedded deep in our culture.
Stop thinking about sex as a prize. Start thinking about it as something fun you’re doing with someone else who wants to have fun too. Don’t think of consent as something you can win either — or as a lid you’ve managed to get open. Consent should be desire and enthusiasm. Consent should be active and joyful. It isn’t complicated. You’re not looking for a cheat code, or a combination, or a series of moves that reveal the shortest way to the end of the puzzle. You’re looking for a human who wants to have fun with you — which actually makes this way easier because you can have fun with people before sex ever comes up, so you don’t even have to focus on sex as a goal. Fun is your goal — your fun and other people’s, which can be mutual and amazing!
I think most of us would rather live in a world of people than of puzzle boxes, anyway.
Edited 9/16 to add: Comments on this piece are now closed due to the time constraints of my offline life. Thank you to everyone who contributed and shared!