Trees and Birds

Flickr, phphoto2010. Used under a creative commons license.

Flickr, phphoto2010. Used under a creative commons license.

One of the big drawbacks of christianity, for me, is that it was invented in a part of the world without the seasons I’m used to. The things that are most significant for me meant nothing to the folks writing the bible; am I supposed to believe that the whole spectacular yearly parade that shapes my life in the northern hemisphere is spiritually meaningless?

Honestly, if I had to choose between nature and christianity I would choose nature in a heartbeat. But it doesn’t have a church, at least not in my neighborhood. Nature falls down on the organizational side.

My church is a pretty exploratory one, so we did a parlor class on the spiritual meaning of autumn. If the bible doesn’t have what we need, we will make it up ourselves — so we focused on the two images of the trees turning and the birds migrating, on what we saw in them, which one we identified with the most, and what insights they give us into different virtues.

Herewith our first stab at the spiritual insights to be drawn from the things happening around us in fall:

Screenshot 2015-11-13 07.25.57I find this comparison really useful. Myself, I’m a tree. The things I aspire to almost all fall in the tree column, and hospitality is the virtue I most associate with them. But I have friends who are definitely birds! In our study group at church, we were split 50:50 between those who considered themselves following the path of trees and those following the path of birds.

Our church is gearing up for Divine Intervention, in which we offer winter shelter for the night to 20-25 of the local homeless ‘campers,’ as they prefer to be called. The tree and bird images couldn’t have come at a better time.

swallows on a branch in snow

Flickr – Keith Williams. Used under a Creative Commons license

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Cutting our own Throats With Privilege Talk

Ever since that article about rising death rates in the white working class came out, my corner of the internet has been full of speculation. Is it stress, caused by the actions of [group writer wishes to vilify]? Are people killing themselves because they lack [supportive social structure writer wishes to defend]? Because they are not getting help from [government program the writer wants to establish]? Because they’ve abandoned [moral position the writer identifies with]?

The most irritating hypothesis I’ve seen has been the Loss of Privilege hypothesis – that working class whites just can’t adapt to the changes that have expanded the groups taken seriously in the country. They can’t compete – they can’t reconcile themselves to having to compete.

I think this is a no-good, horrible, very bad idea. And at the same time it should be a great starburst of enlightenment.

The no-good: it undercuts sympathy. For heavens’ sake, here are poor people killing themselves in large number in my country, and I am supposed to say Aw, poor special snowflake couldn’t cope with being a little less special? F that S. It’s corrosive to me, whether it matters to a suicidal working class person or not.

The horrible, very bad: it gives up the battle before it’s even joined. Because suppose these people are killing themselves because they’ve lost things they used to be able to count on. Living wages, for instance. The hope of a peaceful retirement. Are we really going to agree that those things are ‘privileges?’

The enlightenment: all this privilege talk is a way of KEEPING US FROM DOING RIGHTS TALK. The term ‘privilege’ comes with connotations of ‘unfair,’ ‘special advantage,’ ‘get rid of it,’ that completely stop any consideration of whether these things are rights. It’s the biggest, most succcessful derailing of a national conversation since I’ve been old enough to pay attention.

Let’s look at some items from the gospel according to the privilege knapsack.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

Are you comfortable calling these ‘privileges?’ Saying that they are unfair special advantages that should be gotten rid of? With ‘privileges,’ the inequity would be gone if the privilege were taken away from those who have it. Things would be OK if nobody got to go to the front of the line. All that matters in privilege-land is equity, after all. But do any of us think things would be OK if nobody got reliable health care? If nobody could protect their children?

The word you’re looking for is RIGHTS. Stop calling things ‘privileges’ when they should be RIGHTS  that belong to all of us. Stop worrying about who has ‘privileges’ when the issue is who doesn’t have RIGHTSIt will not be OK if health care and safe housing are taken away from white people too. It will not be OK until those things are available to all, because they are not ‘privileges.’ They are RIGHTS, and it’s time we started calling them RIGHTS.

But that would be awfully inconvenient for some sectors of our society. Because it would give other sectors a common language and a common cause. Better for us to say those white working class people are killing themselves because they no longer have more privileges than others. If we start looking at what the RIGHTS of all citizens ought to be, and how many of them have been taken away over the last 30 years, who knows what might happen?

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Passing Things On (or not)

I’m not a fan, so I didn’t get too far in the Amazing Stories ‘Voice of Fandom’ article, but I got far enough to develop a huge case of deja vu when I read:

The problems facing fandom are multi-fold, but key among them I believe are the following: our graying is not nearly as much of a problem as the fact that we are ineffective in passing our culture on.

I also follow some traditional religious blogs, and this is the theme of them all. We’re not passing our tradition on! Will your children or grandchildren be X, Y, or Z?

I’ve thought about this a little myself, as I get older. I will not be passing my traditions on, and my grandchildren will not be X, Y, or Z, because I have none. Nor has my brother. Whatever proud Bownian traditions have been erected by previous generations will end with us. But the older I get, the more I realize that there were not that many proud Bownian traditions. What I admired in my parents, and regret to see passing from the world, was not unique to them; and it may not really be passing.

There are certainly people out there living the sort of hobby-farm rural lifestyle my father enjoyed, and there are academic philosophers like my mother, and there are people who carry on mannerisms from the pre-war days — I know some of them — and there are people who knit, who can, who chop wood, who garden, who play bridge, who have cats, who read mysteries. There is probably even someone out there who still reads Chemical Abstracts.

But! But! None of them are my parents. None of them tell our family jokes, or remember our family grievances. None of them discuss chemistry in bed or put up floating docks in the middle of the pond or make sun jam or steam their Xmas puddings over a wood stove — except they do, don’t they. As soon as I move away from the mere fact of being my parents into actual things my parents did, I move out of uniqueness.

Our lives are assemblages. Other people’s lives are assemblages. There is probably no single piece of the assemblage unique to any of us except our individuality and our body and our relationships with other individuals and bodies. And this is why I think the angst over tradition is a mistake, because it’s an attempt to displace what we really want, and can never have again, onto something else that is in truth not special in any significant way. We can tinker with a tradition forever without its ever being good enough, or authentic enough, or pure enough, because it really doesn’t contain the magic ingredient at all.

I could make a fetish of my family traditions, live in the same house, wear the same clothes and eat the same food, but none of it would bring my parents back. Better to take the hundreds of things they taught me and enjoy them for their own sake. Thank heaven, none of those things are unique, or even hard to find.

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Let’s do the Time Warp Again

Last night this song was playing on the radio as I drove home. This morning I was reminded of it again as I read the medical news in order – I hoped – to keep my pathophysiology notes up to date.

It’s harder to update my patho notes than you would expect. For instance, today’s oncology research news tidbit is that the closer cancer cells are to the embryonic cell state, the worse the prognosis.  This has been in my patho notes since I attended an oncology workshop in 1991. A few months ago, the research news told me that the cells in any given tumor varied, competing with one another. Amazing! At least, that was my response when I added it to my notes in 1992. I know the dates because I cleaned files this semester, throwing out the old folders I hadn’t opened for twenty years.

For the first ten years or so, I was smug when science writers discovered the existence of things I had been teaching for years. Now, it’s just plain embarrassing. How many times are the same old concepts going to be presented as brand new discoveries?

The internet was supposed to speed up the dissemination of information. We were all going to be more up to date when work didn’t have to wait 5 years between lab and textbook. And maybe for people deep in the field, whose interest is in the practical application of these concepts or the techniques of how to measure them, cancer biology is just zooming along.  But I am out here longing for some science writing with even a tiny bit of historical context – even a 30-second PubMed search to reveal how long something’s been in the literature.

Of course the real issue may be that the outlets I followed back then were the current science of their day, while the ones I follow now – the ones I can understand – are incapable of presenting the real cutting-edge work. Perhaps the real new stuff is inside an impenetrable fortress of molecular genetics, so we whole-body folks are left outside with the people who are just discovering that cells exist. Perhaps what I really need to update my patho notes is a course in cancer genetics.

Or perhaps the major conceptual discoveries really were all made in the early ’90s, and I shouldn’t have thrown out all those old folders.

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Time and Patience

Continuing to reflect on short stories, I wonder why my own short stories are less upbeat than my novellas or novels.

In my novels, things have to work out for the majority of the characters before I’m willing to stop writing. In the novellas I feel the same impulse, but a lot of the time characters only come to terms with their situations rather than fixing them. In my short stories, however, things often go from bad to worse.

I have a bunch of half-finished shorts in my file right now, and when I pick one of them up my brain immediately goes into what trope can I subvert? mode. How can I dash the reader’s expectations? What cliche can I lead up to and then veer away from? How can I take this off the beaten track? I hardly ever think about the characters’ problems and how I might solve them. I approach the story the way critics do, or the way my literature professors did.

When I work on a novel or novella, this sort of writerly stuff doesn’t come to mind. Instead, I focus on the characters and events. I want lots of fully realized characters who disagree with each other.

And this, perhaps, is why I fight with my short stories. Without space to explore conflicting perspectives, I feel I have to provide one of them myself; and the usual way to do that is to show, through word choice or tone or ambiguous or even negative endings, that the protagonist’s perspective didn’t work out so well in the end.

The only way I’ve found to escape this tendency on my part is to write folklore or fairy tales, which I feel are meant to be viewed remotely as a comment on the culture that produced them. The form comes with the skeptical distance built in.

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Short Stories, Meh or Yeah?

girl reading by fireside

Inseparables by Florence Fuller. From Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons License.

There’s been lots of conversation about short stories in the genre the past few weeks. Charles Payseur amazed me when he caught up with everything put out by the big players, and had to think about where to look for reading material! Lela Buis mentioned Greg Hullender’s new short story review site, Rocket Stack Rank, questioning its choice to focus on the big players only, and Greg posted an analysis of where the recent Hugo winners for short story had been published, ending with what I see as a self-fulfilling prophesy about which magazines you would read to be sure of seeing the winning stories. Finally, Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke wrote about the elephant we all know is in the roomthat hardly anybody reads short stories except authors, and hardly anybody cares about short story magazines except the people who hope to sell to them. Update and corection: I must have been thinking about some other article! He wrote about the business model and its problems, but this wasn’t one he mentioned. My apologies.

This isn’t new. Interest in short stories seems to have been declining ever since I started writing them. What’s happened? It’s hard for me to say because quite honestly, I am not a big fan of short stories, particularly in the genre. I keep making resolutions to keep up with and review current short stories, but this is entirely because I wish other people would keep up with and review the ones I write.

I wonder how many writers even enjoy creating short stories, and how many of us do it because it’s the established way to keep one’s name out there between novels – and because one really needs the boost of an occasional sale. No matter how much I realize that being a mid-list author looks like a miserable scrabbling life, being a no-list author can feel like failure unless an acceptance or two shows up in the email every now and then.

But the thing is – even I have been an avid short story reader in my day, checking obsessively to see if something new had appeared, saving my favorites on floppy disks and re-reading them at night. When was this golden period? Between the Harry Potter books. And what was I reading so happily? Harry Potter fan fiction. I will read Harry Potter stories until the cows come home, especially if they’re set before the war and involve Hagrid being nice to somebody.

The short fiction I choose to re-read is the equivalent of cuddling up in front of a fire with a comforter, a cup of something warm, and a cat on my lap. But when I think of notable short stories in the genre, what do I remember? The Cold Equations. All Summer in a DayPonies. The closest I’ve come to a heartwarming feel-good short story in the genre is The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.

In my experience, memorable SFF short stories tend to be unpleasant. That’s not because I remember unpleasant things better than pleasant ones. My brain is full of memorable pleasant bits of fiction, many of which have woven themselves into my worldview. But they did not come from genre short stories.

Now, I’m not saying that all or even most genre short stories are dismal or depressing – but that the people who recommend them, give them awards, and collect them into ‘Best of’ anthologies are often looking for other things than whether the story leaves you with a good feeling. And after a certain point, the reader becomes skittish. The reader looks at the glossy-covered magazines or the row of fat anthologies on the shelf and thinks ‘last time I did that, it hurt,’ and walks on by. Or surfs over to a fan-fiction site, where you can sort your stories and specify Hagrid schmoop.

If I were going to start an SFF short story outlet I’d name it The Happy Ending. Its masthead motto would be No Cutting Edges. The nonfiction articles would be about crafting, carpentry, home brewing and raising goats; the stories would be full of house porn and snuggly fantasy pets, and would all leave you with that feeling of they’ll be all right. The ads would be for gourmet hot chocolate, beekeeping supplies, vacation cottages.

It wouldn’t accept very many of my stories. But maybe that needs to change.

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Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

by Beatrix Potter

As I got dressed yesterday, hiking my skirt up to the only point at which it will still fit around my torso, I realized that I have entered the Mrs Tiggy-Winkle stage of couture.

Then I thought, I could do a lot worse. And that started me wondering about the image of stout folks in fantasy, which I think, for all the princess cult, is more positive than negative. The fairy godmothers in Disney’s Cinderella are stout, as is the cook in Castle Waiting. Baloo is stout. Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts, Belle’s father, Shrek, Vladimir and Sophie in Anastasia — stout folks seem to be on the side of good more often than the side of evil, Ursula notwithstanding, and they seem to be accepted just as they are. They’re not often given a romance, but sometimes…

Making life better, one cup at a time

More usually, they are supporting characters who make life better for everyone around them. Their skills, if not explicitly magical, are effectively magical; what they do, they do without effort, and it can generally be relied upon.

This is what I wanted to be as a girl

I think a lot of the angst about fairy tales assumes that viewers are trying to identify with the princesses. Certainly Disney is trying to make money off their identification with the princesses and princes, but even as a 3-year-old I knew princesses were a bore. I wanted to be the fairy godmother or one of the animal companions – the ones who had fun, and power! And a large number of them, it seems to me, are stout. Bulky. Unapologetic. If you mentioned their weight, they would look at you with complete incomprehension. (I think complete incomprehension is vastly under-rated as a strategy for coping with society’s demands, and more of us should adopt it. But that’s another post.)

Better living through complete incomprehension

Not to say that I’ve been untouched by fairy-tale propaganda in my life. Many years ago, when I was wondering why I just couldn’t drum up any interest in losing weight, I realized that my image of the skinny person is negative – superior, judgmental, snooty – and since I don’t know any actual skinny people like that, I’m wondering if it came from fairy tales.

Who knows?

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Podcasted!

WOOHOO! Fantasy Scroll chose my story The Adjunct for their latest podcast! And they did a fantastic job of it too.

This is the first time I have ever been podcasted. I can tick off another box on my bucket list!

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A Minor Irritation Solved

If I had back all the hours I have spent editing label lines out of diagrams, I wouldn’t need to request a sabbatical. And the classier the diagram, the harder it is to remove those pesky lines; you can’t just draw over them with the background color, when the background color is a gradient.

Today I found a pretty good workaround using Paint. The trick is to draw over the line using the pencil brush option. Not the pencil tool; the pencil option under ‘Brushes.’ Thusly:

The image I'm editing is from Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license

After selecting that option, use the dropper tool to pick up the color from a pixel right next to the offending diagram line. Then brush over the line, back and forth, marveling as it gradually disappears.

Here it is, without those pestiferous label lines!

It’s not perfect, but it was a lot easier than copying bits of the background and patching them over the lines!

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Kibitzer Nation

Kibitzers should be neither seen nor heard!

This is what my father would say when we suggested that he change what he was currently doing with a power tool. He was a guy who did not easily cope with distraction. He was also a guy whose activities often invited corrective suggestions, but that’s beside my current point – which is that the amount of kibitzing in the world, as compared to actual activity, seems to be ever-increasing. I suggest a new collective noun; a twitter of kibitzers.

It seems as if all of us know how everybody else should have done it. Some of us are realistic about our suggestions, some of us as unrealistic as I used to be when I daydreamed about just reaching out and catching people who were falling past my window. But we would always have done it better and more forcefully, in a more timely manner…

For some of us, kibitzing remains our favorite indoor sport for our whole lives, until we die more forcefully and in a more timely manner than all those other schmucks who weren’t doing it right. But for others, it somehow morphs into insight and self-reflection. We realize that in fact, we wouldn’t have done it any better. Usually because we’ve tried it, and we didn’t do it any better. What happens, though, when kibitzing takes up more of our time than trying?

Well, look at what’s happened to the teaching profession. Every person who ever attended school, or had children who attended school, or pays taxes to suport school, feels qualified to kibitz about every last thing teachers do. Hardly anybody actually tries to do any of that stuff.

A few years ago, I volunteered at a nature center and tried leading classes of schoolchildren. It is not as trivially easy as kibitzers think it is – and teachers add actual education on top of it! But no, we all kibitz ourselves into actually believing we could do it better and that teachers don’t deserve respect or decent salaries. Then the system stops working – the more clever college students stop training to enter the profession, the new hires see the writing on the wall and leave – and we are confirmed in our kibitzery. We could have done it better.

I’m old enough, and have tried enough things, to imagine myself doing a mediocre job of almost any occupation. So the areas I can kibitz in have narrowed to the ones that I’m actually an expert in (Eight hours of recorded lectures a week? Are they mad?) and the ones I actually know nothing about (Why don’t they just bring back the talking filibuster?).

You have no idea how much time this frees up.

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