Bleg Pays Off

award-winning jacket design by Alberta artist Susan Menzies.

This is what it looked like -- "Sun Over Darkness Prevail" award-winning jacket design by Alberta artist Susan Menzies.

“So gentle and mild is the far-distant air,
And the forests and fields are so clean and so rare,
Blue forest on white gleaming prairie,
The grandeur of nature to all is unfurled,
It seems as if spring could fill up the whole world,
Even up to the cold glaciers’ eyrie…”
(Stephan G. Stephansson, September Snow)

I often wonder what the point is of blogging, but then someone reads an old post and sends me great news — like today, when I got an email from Richard White’s daughter letting me know that an LP I love, Sun Over Darkness Prevail, has been digitally reissued. The album sets to music poems by the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson.

I first heard this music when I was at school in Edmonton. I played the album in my 10th-floor office a lot and it’s linked in my mind to the wide skies and far fields, as well as the graduate school excitement that’s fueled so much of my writing and my ideas of the ideal life. I would look out past the misty edge of the city, pale blue in the distance under an even paler sky, and listen to songs about the very place I was looking at.

To me, Alberta was The Last Best West. I loved everything about it. But I had grown up in smaller, more settled countryside, and Stephansson wrote about that too. His poetry described the view from my parents’ house as well as the view from my Edmonton window:

Pennsylvania mists, July 2013

Pennsylvania mists, July 2013

“When fields of grain have caught a gleam of moonlight
But dark the ground —
A pearl-grey mist has filled to over-flowing
The dells around;
Some golden stars are peeping forth to brighten
The eastern wood —
Then I am resting out upon my doorstep
In nature’s mood.”
(Stephan G. Stephansson, Evening)

It was thirty years ago. Since graduate school, my life has been even better every year — except in music.  So many of my old LPs disappeared in one move or another — I lost half of them, my winter boots, and a set of shark jaws to Canada Post, and more to the move from my parents’ to Milwaukee –but now I can enjoy one of them again.  Thank you, Anna White!

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The Mini-career roars along

I’ve posted before about my mini-scale writing career, and how it’s providing everything an author could want — only in smaller doses, without paparazzi.  So I’ve received two fan emails, met two fans at conferences for lunch, posted one piece of fan art on my office filing cabinet, unexpectedly met one fan at a Thanksgiving dinner … and this week I got to spend an evening with cosplayers dressed as alumnae and faculty of the Royal Academy.  I sat next to Linus Ukadnian at dinner — thankfully, not a method actor!  The real Linus would be an unpleasant companion.

In addition, I was the answer to a game show question at an awards dinner. All right, it was an in-house game show at our employee recognition dinner. I told you this was a mini-career, yes?

I’m not the most celebrated author at our college, but I felt like it this week.  Friends are worth more than fame any day!

It's the style for alums to dress as their study subjects - in this case, a dryad

It's the style for alums to dress as their study subjects - in this case, a dryad

with Royal Academy alums

On the left is Linus Ukadnian, just back from hiking a ley-line.

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Call it Fred

I hang around on a conservative blog, and every now and then its members get into a flurry of definition.  It suddenly matters, more than anything else, whether a particular thing is ‘conservative’ or not.  Is unbridled capitalism conservative? Is gay marriage?  Is the latin mass?

To be fair, some of the people around that blog are so much more conservative than I am that they may believe in platonic ideals, in which case these definitional concerns might make a little sense — though even then, they would just push the question along the line to ‘Well then, am I a conservative?’  But I think most of us are modern enough to agree that there really is no holotype specimen of a conservative on the shelves of the Smithsonian, or anywhere else.  Nor a holotype feminist, christian, man, american, etc.

So why do we give a rip? Whenever these definitional flaps arise, they seem to be loaded with a bunch of assumptions.  For instance:

1. There are a bunch of people out there who are invested in being X, so if we change the definition of X we can change their behavior. As in, ‘a conservative case for gay marriage.’ Or ‘the conservative thing to do is to conserve the environment.’  Has this ever worked?  I see no evidence that there are many people more concerned with adhering to their chosen labels than with making their own decisions.  Or rather, I see evidence that there are perhaps a dozen of those people, and they are all writing blogs to and about each other like a bunch of bots — because who really lets a word override their own judgment except a robot?

2. There are a lot of people out there who hate this label, but if we define it properly they will sign on. As in about half of what is posted about feminism.  Ineffectively, I might add.  Because nobody who’s paid the slightest attention thinks that simply believing women should have the same rights as men is all there is to feminism.  It’s just the sugar coating.

3. Maintaining the integrity of the label matters, because how else will we establish political movements? Well gosh, I don’t know!  Perhaps we should ask the Democrats, who were for slavery until they were against it.  Or the Republicans, who  – you get the drift.  It’s funny, isn’t it, that the actually successful political parties are the least to be believed when they define themselves.

4. Most people aren’t paying attention, and will support anybody who identifies as X.  So if we just convince the leaders of X to change their positions, the sheeple who vote based on labels will plod along behind them. This one’s the most plausible, in my mind.  Except, if that’s the underlying reasoning, carrying out your redefinition project on the public internet seems a tad self-defeating.  What happened to the good ol’ smoke-filled room?

Part of me hates labels, and part of me realizes that we need them to talk about things.  At the very least, we need them for google searches.  But this idea that once I’ve signed on to a label I then somehow belong to its self-appointed redefiners, to be steered hither and yon at their whim — that really steams my socks.

Because I know how a label ought to be established. I was trained in systematics, and I know that the first step is to collect the type specimen, kill it, and soak it in 10% formaldehyde.  If it’s large, you may have to open the body cavities first.  Then you wash it in water for about a day and by gradual steps transfer it into 70% ethyl alcohol.  You describe it, carefully referencing all previous names and the International Society for Zoological Nomenclature criteria.  You publish your paper in a reputable journal, and deposit your type specimen in a museum.

Any self-appointed movement definer out there who wishes to go through this procedure will have my respect, and maybe even my attention.  Until then, I think I’ll do what my father always advised when we got into definitional arguments.  I’ll “Call it Fred,” or Donna, or David.

Building a group out of Freds, Donnas and Davids may seem like a long-term, inefficient, piecemeal endeavor.  But think of all the time I won’t waste arguing about its definition on the internet!

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Kicking and Screaming

Here’s what I want: I want a dollar for every hour I’ve spent changing my life to cope with unnecessary upgrades.

Why am I ranting?  Right now, it’s because of Windows 7.

Our school implemented Windows 7 over the summer, so faculty came back to a new environment in which our favorite teaching software did not work.  Thank goodness IT was slow about upgrading the lab computers, so we were able to head them off at the pass before thousands of dollars’ worth of physiology data acquisition equipment became so much useless electronic debris!  Some departments, that depend on classroom computers, weren’t so lucky. Those profs are scrambling to find replacements for the activities they designed their courses around.

So I wrote to my brother.  He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t own a bed, but has eight computers.  Surely he would know how we could run virtual Windows XP environments on the Windows 7 platform that had been forced upon us, and he did.  But his advice came with an innocent question:

“What kind of software is it that requires Windows XP, and cannot run on Windows 7?”


Not that my brother has that question, but that the IT guys at Microsoft probably have the same question, with the same tone of innocent astonishment.  If, that is, they have even thought of it.

The people designing upgrades are, by definition, on the cutting edge.  They don’t have any idea how little the rest of us care about being up to date.  How out of date would I be happy to be?  I wrote my first classroom tutorials in Apple Basic and ran them on an Apple IIc, and I would be just fine with doing that today.

I’m writing a story right now about someone who takes a job in hell. I think one of the perks they promise her is NO UPGRADES!

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The Tone Argument

When I was in research science, nobody had yet identified the ‘tone argument.’  Nevertheless, I understood that it was irrelevant.  The value of somebody’s paper lay in the Materials and methods and Results sections, not in the Introduction and Discussion in which he (it was always he) disemboweled his competitors and colleagues.

There were counterexamples all around me — my major professor was the best-mannered, most-loved person in all of Canadian ichthyology — but I had been raised a nerd in a family of nerds, and I chose not to see them.  Data ought to matter more than manners, I maintained.  Sucking up to the audience was beneath any serious scientist.  So my transition into small-college teaching, especially a small women’s college still heavily informed by the worldview of an order of nuns, was rocky to say the least.  It seemed as if this new world was one big tone argument, where B.S. stated with a smile would win out over the unvarnished truth every time.  By the end of my third year, I was a thorough discontent.  I was, in fact, my character Linus Ukadnian (minus the beard).

Linus was a man with his feet on solid ground, a man in touch with the plain facts. And massaging the plain facts to flatter other people’s self-delusions was worse than a waste of time; it was a sin, a perversion of the intellect. He would have no truck with such rubbish, he told himself every morning as he trimmed his gray beard.

What brought this back into my mind was an article I read a few days ago about How to Develop a Trusted Senior Colleague, and a paragraph it contained advising the new faculty member to avoid just such persons as I was then.

Watch out for snakes in the nicely manicured grass of your new campus. Often the first people to befriend you are the most isolated and disgruntled. They are looking for a recruit to their toxic faction.

That stung, even after all these years!  Yet, had I read it at the time, I would have scorned it as politics, avoiding the more important issues of whether the malcontents were correct.

 Politics or not, though, it was already an understood rule during my early years.  I could not make the friends I wanted among entering faculty.  Still thrilled by the new job, none of them wanted to spend time with a mordant critic of the institution.
I was lucky enough to have a Trusted Senior Colleague even more mordant than myself, and this lent her credibility when she made the Tone Argument in a way I have never forgotten.  ”Nobody wants to follow you,” she said, “because nobody wants to end up where you are.”

Nowadays, the Tone Argument is scorned as yet another tool of the oppressor.  Not only is your system making me miserable, but you want me to be polite in stating my outrage! Yet the advice my TSC gave me remains as true to human nature as it was twenty years ago.  I think about it every time I check my RSS aggregator and skim posts from blogs I used to read eagerly, because I have learned that any post from this blog will invite readers to go fuck themselves, one from that blog will tell them not to expect cookies, etc. etc.  Sure, these bloggers are probably speaking a lot of truth.  But I’m not happy following them, because I don’t want to end up where they are.

If only blog posts were conveniently divided into Materials and Methods, Results, Introduction and Discussion!

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Union buttonFinally a group of adjuncts have managed to form a working union! Pretty amazing. How recently was it that I was complaining about how non-insurrectionist downtrodden PhDs were? I’m happy to be proved wrong.

I have mixed feelings about unions. My father worked in a unionized college, and hated the union because it limited the number of hours he could teach. None of us sympathized.  But when he retired and the contract kept him from working part-time at the college, I did sympathize.  On the other hand, it was that union intransigence that made sure that I had full-time, tenure track instructors.  It was full-time or nothing in every department.  In fact, through four college degrees I never took a course from an adjunct.  Was this good or bad?

Now I work at a non-unionized college, with lots of adjuncts and fewer full-time lines every year.  Would it be better with a union?  I can’t say I feel the need for one, but I’d be surprised if the adjuncts didn’t.  So I’m watching the news with interest, especially articles about Catholic colleges and adjuncts.

I’ve tried to work out my conflicted feelings about unions in fiction.  The Royal Academy is not unionized, and the only people there who show any interest in forming one are the demons. The only unionized institution of higher magic, The University of Kasidora, is racked by faculty infighting and an adversarial relationship between faculty and administration. Union membership saves the day in A Lovesome Thing and sends someone to hell in Unite and Conquer.  In fiction, as well as real life, I just can’t make up my mind.

I am, however, working on a plot thread in which Osyth hires a demon as an adjunct. So adjuncts and unions are on a collision course in my fiction as well as in real life.  I’m just not sure how many votes a union member who’s eaten seven other faculty should have…

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The Babbling Internet

I get a few hundred links a week in my RSS aggregator, and guess which ones I get the least out of? The ones that send me to a page with a two-line teaser and embedded video of a talking head. Maybe I’m just a total text junkie, but I can scan a three-page article, pounce on the two sentences that interest me, and decide whether it’s worth saving to Zotero in about 90 seconds. In that amount of time, the video announcer has introduced the topic and the speaker has cleared his throat.

What’s the point of a talking-head video in a technical field? If the person’s insights are important, I’ll want them in written form so I can quote them. I don’t care what they look or sound like, and if they’re referring to data I want the tables and charts in front of me now — not some ‘here’s an idea, now you have to go look it up because we can’t even be bothered to post a link to the paper’ time waster.

Basically, these videos take a half page of material (if that) and make a big deal out of the fact that a person is saying it out loud. Great for someone who learns through listening and is interested in the Cliff’s Notes version, I suppose — but how many of those people are viewing technical blogs?

Ironically enough, the major talking-head source in my current set of feeds is a blog about good social media practices in higher education. They are two useless links away from being purged.

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Unneeded Fantasy

Abigail Nussbaum’s most recent review over at Strange Horizons asks an interesting question — why use fantasy to tell a story?  It’s a question I’ve been asking about several of the novels I’ve read lately.

Fairies have been enjoying a renaissance in my reading, if not in the genre as a whole.  I’ve read three novels in the last six months in which main characters turned out to be fairies living in this world, and in all three cases I was left asking ‘Why?’

Not that they were poorly written. In fact, two out of the three were very well written indeed — until the fantasy appeared.  I read the first two-thirds of each novel with growing appreciation.  How real the settings were, how realistic and in-depth the characters!  How well the authors drew me into experiences I am usually hard to draw into!  How varied were the characters with whom I found myself sympathizing!  ’This is really fine stuff,’ I said to myself — and then the fantasy hit, like a mound of mint frosting plopped onto a filet mignon.  One minute well-realized characters were exploring their inner lives, and the next they were battling dragons as they ran across a rainbow, their tragically killed loved ones were coming back to life, they were flying up into thunderstorms.  Why? For the love of God, WHY?

I wasn’t the only reader who didn’t like this combination of meat and icing.  Goodreads critics gave one of the novels quite a trouncing.  But what they objected to was not the icing but the meat.  ’We had to plow through all that characterization and story and mundane drama and soap opera, before we got to any of the good stuff!’ was the general plaint.

It’s funny, I can remember making the exact same kinds of complaints when I was young.  That was back when I believed that drama was just invented by writers, and that real people never did such senseless things as adultery or stalking.  I had a pretty impoverished view of humanity in my youth, and if I was going to read about unbelievable people doing improbable things I wanted talking dragons, at least.  Then I got bigger and went out in the real world, where I met people who actually engaged in the kind of stuff I had thought Shakespeare made up in his fevered imagination.  Nowadays, the mystery of why people do the real things they do intrigues me far more than how they’ll overcome that three-headed dog at the gates of hell.

As I looked back on the experience of reading these unsatisfying novels, I realized that nowadays a fantasy novel needs to un-suspend my disbelief.  I can enjoy something that’s fantasy all the way through, that lets me know that and prepares me to pick meaning out of a rather impressionistic portrayal of human beings and their problems.  But to start with tight, bright realism and then switch into the comparatively fuzzy world of fantasy is not, in my opinion, a good strategy.  If the issues your story deals with are non-fantasy issues, why bring the fantasy in at all?

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Dystopian visions — are you doing anything?

When I was young, there was a commercial my parents loved. It was for some allergy medicine or other, and it showed a bored little boy sitting on the porch steps. From inside the house came his mother’s voice: “Johnny, I hope you’re not doing anything!”

I’m thinking about this because I just read Rob Godman’s article in The Chronicle about dystopian literature. He attributes the current boom in it to ‘apocalyptic narcissism,’ which he defines as “the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.”

Well, I buy this explanation entirely when it’s applied to the political blogs I follow. Every single group is convinced that their issue is the one on which our civilization will founder. But in fiction? Not so much.

As an SF and fantasy fan, I’ve read lots of dystopian novels. More recently a friend spent a while writing one, and our critique group read it in several iterations. We quite liked it, but couldn’t figure out the plot arc or where it was going; the most lovingly detailed parts of it were how its protagonists survived in a city where all the other people were dead. It eventually transpired that this book in fact had no plot arc, something which didn’t interfere with our enjoyment of it in the least. The whole point of it was survival.

Likewise, when I read The Hunger Games what stuck with me was not the plot or the setting but the details of how the heroine gathered wild food and caught rabbits. Isn’t freedom to do that what she’s fighting for all along?

To me, a large section of US-written dystopia has always been a pretext for getting rid of civilization so the protagonists can be self-sufficient pioneers. No more forms to file, no more tickets or taxes to pay or bylaws to obey. No more rules against cutting down that tree or digging that hole. Better to scrounge through a desolate city full of corpses than be safe and fed in a gated community that has no use for your skills — a community, in fact, that doesn’t want you to use those skills.

So I find myself wondering whether the current boom in dystopias is not just frustration at a world in which more and more of us appear to be useless, our skills unwanted, our ambitions a nuisance. In dystopia, the unwanted can enjoy stories about a world remade in which all their abilities matter, exactly in the way I enjoyed Little House on the Prairie.

There’s a big difference, though. Little House led into The Foxfire Books, Euell Gibbons, gardening, sewing, knitting, building, making. What do dystopian visions of outlasting one’s culture lead to? Can anything be done with them except more dreaming? But then, this may be the point – to sell more books. To keep the unwanted hordes staring at their Kindle screens, rather than getting up and making nuisances of themselves.

So go ahead, download that next end-of-the-world novel. It could be worse. You could be doing something.

Update: Jennifer Silva’s article on working-class students captures exactly what I’m trying to say!

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Corrected knitting chart 5

The summer knit-along folks pointed out a problem with my chart.  Great catch!  Here’s the corrected version:

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