Protected: Podcast 23: Look at that s car go!

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Everyday martyrdom for the weak and afraid

If you have ever looked in the mirror and thought with shame and distress that you could never die for your faith, think again. Life in Christ is a life of a thousand, million little deaths: deaths to old ways of thinking, death to false security, death to complacency, death to trivial comforts. Any time you inquire about your Faith, you are whispering to Christ, however reluctantly, that you are open to killing off some part of yourself that does not deserve to live.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Photo: By nieznany – Polish Righteous awarded with medals for bravery by the Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Cropped and color managed by Poeticbent (dyskusja · edycje), Domena publiczna, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7130230

Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
***
As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

Your recourse if you have been raped

My friend R. was raped many years ago. It was not a story with any gray areas. She was walking home from work when a large man grabbed her, beat and choked her, tied her up with duct tape, locked her up, and raped her dozens of times over the course of days. She eventually escaped and reported what happened as soon as she was able. The man was caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

She kept it a secret when it happened. She didn’t say anything until the day her story came up much later in the news, and she heard some women discussing  . . . her.

Not the rapist. Not the rape. They were discussing her — what she had been wearing, what her sexual history was, what she had been wearing, why she had been in that neighborhood, what she had been wearing, whether she had fought hard enough to get away, and why she hadn’t gone to the police sooner. Why had it happened in the first place? What should she have done differently? What had she been wearing?

And how do we know she’s even telling the truth?

I knew this woman. A gentle, generous, self-effacing human being, a lover of babies and kittens, honest to a fault. The women who wanted to talk about her skirt length didn’t know any this, because they didn’t know her. All they knew was that she had been raped.

And that in itself was a reason not to believe that she had been really raped. It must be her fault somehow. How do we know? Well, she says she was raped, and we know what kind of woman says a thing like that.

Bill Cosby’s attorney knows full well this is how people think, and he’s banking his entire defense argument on it.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually violating Andrea Constand. Constand is the only alleged victim in this case, but she is one of over sixty women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. As the accusations have filtered in over the course of decades, literally every circumstance surrounding the accusation is used against the alleged victim.

Last time Cosby was in the news in 2014, I compiled a list of arguments I heard over and over again — arguments that made me wonder if there was anything a raped woman could say, any way she could respond, any action she could take, that would make people believe her, or even give her the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been raped, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of rape, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you want the money so badly that you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of rape, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelieveable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who raped you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a rapist, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a rapist, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been raped, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

What I’ve learned is that if you’ve been raped, your only real recourse is not to have been raped. Because anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the word “rape,” that’s evidence in the minds of many that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

Your only real recourse is not to have been raped.

***

Photo by dilettant:nikki via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A portion of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2014. 

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

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What’s for supper? Vol. 85: Musings

This week, I managed to take one (1) picture of food, and I managed to make one (1) meal that it even made sense to take a picture of.

Therefore, I will claim the droit du mommyblogger and outrageously pad the following text with irrelevant photos of my little home, all designed, with the help of free online editing software, to arouse strong emotions when you compare them with your own surroundings.

SATURDAY
Hamburgers, chips, Star Crunch

Before I commence with the domestic portion of this post, here is something that has been on my heart for many years, and I feel convicted to share.

Star Crunch are the hamburgers of the packaged dessert world.

THINK ABOUT IT. I’m not saying it is a coincidence and I’m not saying it’s not not a coincidence. I’m just saying. This is how They do it. None so blind, eh?

***

SUNDAY
Oven-roasted pork ribs, baked potatoes, asparagus; vanilla ice cream with fresh blueberry sauce

A very fine meal that was all about making the oven hot, putting pans of food in, and then taking them out again later.

For the blueberries, I put them in a pot with some sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and a little butter and mashed them a little.

***

MONDAY
Chicken and salad

I wondered if I could make chicken for salad in my Instant Pot. I Googled it, and quickly turned up a post about this very thing. Written by me.

I prefer to describe this phenomenon (which happens on the regular) as “humility,” rather than “profound idiocy.”

***

TUESDAY
Thai chicken coconut soup (Tom Kha Gai), rice

Once, I made a soup so overwhelmingly offensive to the senses that, when, on my way to the table, I slipped on a wet bathing suit and dropped the pot and the soup all ran under the refrigerator, the children spontaneously cheered.

This soup wasn’t quite that good.

I followed this recipe, which includes a delicious combination of chicken and mushrooms with coconut milk, lemongrass, fresh ginger, lime juice, fish sauce, chile paste, basil, and cilantro. But I accidentally boiled the hell out of it, so the coconut milk broke. I also misunderstood the point of lemongrass, and cut it into little bits which were irretrievable.

The taste was actually not terrible, but the texture was just so upsetting. You know when you find a sippy cup of milk that’s been sitting in the sun all week? Then garnish with hot bamboo. What I’m trying to say, fresh lime juice will only take you so far.

***

WEDNESDAY
Mushroom, cheddar, and salami omelettes; salad

***

THURSDAY
Chicken drumsticks, peas, bread and butter

I cooked the chicken in the morning and then crashed so hard. This week has been murder. Murder, I tell you. By the time it was time to eat, I could barely work up the strength to allow the chicken to plummet from my hands onto the table. With my last reserves, I chucked two bags of frozen peas after it, then nudged a loaf of bread in the dining room’s general direction, and died.

***
FRIDAY
Bowties with pesto

I don’t think you heard me the first time, so I’ll spell it out for you.

And I will see you on the other side.

Pain and pleasure, God and the fly

We always ask why there has to be pain in the world, but how often do we ask why there is pleasure? The sleeping fly will wake with a start and buzz off to another day of his meaningless life, driven by impulses, unaware that he is even alive, until one day he suddenly dies.

But I wake up . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Understated greats: Jesse Winchester

Why has no one told me about singer and songwriter Jesse Winchester? I heard an excerpt of an interview with him on American Routes yesterday, and whoooo, what an interesting guy.

Here’s the song that really knocked me back a few paces. “Isn’t that so” from Third Down 110 to Go (1972):

I don’t think these lyrics are as flip and breezy as they seem at first. Is he really advocating for following the “line of least resistance,” or is he making a quiet accusation? Either way, it’s a heck of a song.

Winchester also wrote songs for Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Anne Murray, Reba McEntire, the Everly Brothers, Lyle Lovett, and Emmylou Harris, among others. I have endless admiration for folks who write and perform short songs. Say what you came to say and then move along!

The American Routes interviewer says,

[I]n your life there’s seems to be this back and forth between your southern sensibilities in growing up and then migration for various things. You went off to college in Massachusetts. That had to have been kind of culture shock if you were growing up around North Mississippi and Memphis I would think.

And Winchester answers:

Nick, you put the nail on the head, buddy. It was a shock to me. It was the first time I came across people who put sugar in their cornbread, and I was so disappointed in them.

Ha. A very thoughtful guy, but with a pervasive humility and quiet sense of humor. He moved to Canada to avoid the draft in Vietnam (a choice I understand better now that I have teenage boys and a president I trust not at all), and launched his career there. He says in the interview:

I remember a quotation from Peter Ustinov, who was one of my favorite actors. He said there’s no national anthem that sets my toe a-tappin’ and I know what he meant. It’s a very dicey issue — nationalism. I’m not sure where I stand on it. Who am I? I don’t know. I like certain things about living in the south and certain things about living in the north. It’s just, viva la difference.

He didn’t return to the US to tour until 1977, after President Carter extended amnesty to draft dodgers who changed their citizenship.

Here’s “Step By Step” from Let the Rough Side Drag (1976). This song will be familiar to viewers of The Wire:

and (skipping forward several decades) a song recorded shortly before he died of bladder cancer in 2014, just a few years after he had been treated and cured of cancer of the esophagus in 2011:
“All That We Have Is Now:”

 

From the album A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. I’m thrilled to discover a new-to-me singer/songwriter. If you’re already in the know, which Jesse Winchester album do you recommend?

***
Photo of Jesse Winchester by robbiesaurus (Flickr: Jesse Winchester) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

MOANA review: Even the chosen one has a choice

Early on in the animated movie Moana (2016), the Polynesian chieftain’s daughter has an adorable pet pig who’s always getting into amusing scrapes. You think, as a seasoned Disney audience, that you’ve identified the heroine’s big-eyed, wordless sidekick.

But then Moana just sails off without her pig, and she accidentally and reluctantly acquires a brainless, completely un-cute chicken for a sidekick instead.

This switcheroo feels like a deliberate nose-thumb to predictable Disney tropes. Moana’s constant companion often provides comic relief, but not as a cutesy break from the story. Instead, she has to break away from her own concerns and preserve him from death countless times, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so we get our first clue that Moana is not your typical Disney princess.

Here she is as a baby:

She wants very much to pick up the beautiful shell that is being pulled back out to sea, but makes herself protect the baby turtle, instead. She’s rewarded not for who is she is, but for what she does.

And so the movie departs from typical Disney fare in a more important but less obvious way than the chicken sidekick. It’s instantly established that she’s a strong, determined, spirited girl who is different from the rest, and she’s going to end up disobeying her father and achieving something remarkable, a la Ariel/Belle/Pocahontas/Mulan/Et Al, setting herself apart from the people who want her to stay home, be good, take no chances, etc.

But! While Moana does disobey her father, she has an excellent, self-sacrificial reason for doing so. In fact, she has the same goals as her father has, and she ends up achieving what he has taught her from babyhood that it’s her duty to achieve.

So this is not yet another story where Ms. Lovely Rebel flips her hair at the patriarchy and is rewarded handsomely for betraying everyone who loves her. Instead, she is a good, loving daughter who follows her calling, rather than following her heart. Melanie Bettinelli goes into this refreshing theme in more detail. Obedience is good, but it’s in service to something greater, and sometimes you have to just go serve something greater more directly.

Which leads me to another appealing theme in Moana: There’s a lot about being chosen and being special and having a mission and fulfilling your destiny; but every single character also very clearly has free will, along with being chosen to act. Everyone makes a choice: Maui makes several choices; even the grandmother says, as she gets her (later significant) stingray tattoo, “I hope I made the right choice.”

Moana decides at one point that she can’t or won’t go on any further, and returns the magical whatsit to the ocean. She quits and tells the ocean to choose someone else. And the ocean accepts it.

She was the chosen one, but she still has a choice herself, and she is free to crap out, which she does. (Spoiler: She later changes her mind, and Does the Thing after all, and it’s awesome.) The ocean helps them and sometimes outright saves them, but they have to do a lot more helping of themselves, by deciding to be who they are meant to be.

It felt, for an animated Polynesian myth, an awful lot like how life really works.

Just as Moana discovers that she can fulfill what her father has taught her while still disobeying his explicit command (like her ancestors, finding new islands while keeping her home in mind), she learns that her mission is somewhat different (and quite a bit harder) than she originally thought. She thought she just had to fulfill the letter of the law, act out the myth, and the rest would fall into place. Turns out she has to get a lot more involved than that. This, too, felt a lot like real life.

And if we’re going to talk about the message that young girls are receiving from their cartoon heroines, I thoroughly endorse this one: Yes, you have a vocation, and yes, you need to follow it. No, that doesn’t mean everything will automatically sail smoothly toward your happy ending. At one point, Maui is horrified to find that Moana doesn’t actually know how to sail. She draws herself up and says, with feeble bravado, “I . . . am self-taught.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. Following your heart will only take you so far. You have to not only know what your goal is, but you have to learn how to get there.

This theme of free will choices leads up very neatly to the astonishing and tremendously satisfying climax of the movie, when Moana confronts the great lava demon and reminds her that she, too, has a choice.

Hot damn! That scene is so good (the above clip is only a little bit of it). Best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and very moving.

Other things I liked:

The plot was coherent, and the several themes worked well together. The only messy, unnecessary part was the coconut pirate scene. Seemed like a blatant bid for toy sales; and my old brain couldn’t understand what it was seeing, with all that hopping around and things exploding. But it didn’t last too long.

The heroine had a very pleasant singing voice. Not too nasal or brazen. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

All of the characters were likeable and interesting. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

It was weird. I don’t know much about Polynesian mythology, but the story was odd and occasionally harsh enough that I suspect they didn’t mess with the myth too much.

There’s no love story, at all. It’s just not that kind of story. The kid is maybe fourteen years old, and she has a lot going on. No boys need apply at this juncture.

A few minor complaints: The pacing was a little off. Some scenes were rushed and cluttered, and others were a little repetitious; but overall, it moved along well.

The mother was incredibly bland. They might as well have done the traditional Disney Dead Mother thing. She does explain her husband’s motivation for cracking down on Moana, and she helps her pack for the voyage, but anyone could have done that. This is a minor complaint, and is probably me projecting.

Several scenes throughout the movie captured something so exhilarating and joyful, I was amazed. The vision of her ancestors is a thing of beauty:

It is a captivating and rejuvenating movie. See it!

Might be scary for younger kids, depending on how sensitive they are.