What happens while you’re making other plans

14 07 2014


This year’s conventions recede behind me.  My write up of Readercon is here, for those who are interested.  No photos.  Not much to say.

It’s partly due to exhaustion, I think.  I am an introvert trying to masquerade as an extrovert, and mostly getting away with it, but often not, and always at a price.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the experience of being with people; it’s just draining.  It makes me want to disappear into the White Mountains with a backpack.

Now things have gotten more complicated.  I’m dealing with a major crisis on the home front, a battle I’ve been fighting for a couple of years now.  I don’t know where I will be when I get dumped out of the shaker, and there’s a remote possibility that somehow it will eventually turn out all right.  But at the moment it looks like I’m losing the battle.

I’ve got all kinds of commitments all over the place, all sorts of odd balls in the air.  That’s the problem with freelancing.  If you’ve got a regular job, you go to work and it’s all there.  Me, I’m in a dozen different places.  I’ve got several websites and organizations that I’m involved with, several different publications that I submit to regularly, many of which don’t overlap in the slightest.  I’ve got two short stories and a novel that have been accepted for publication and I’m waiting on the edits.    And there’s the submissions I haven’t heard back from yet, and I may have to query.  Plus the new leads I ought to follow up.

And suddenly damn near all my energy is getting sucked into trying not to fall off my unicycle as I peddle through the war zone of this domestic meltdown.  So far so good.  Some days I even feel like I’m equal to it all.  No problem.  I can handle this.  Then I lose my balance and start wobbling frantically.

It’s Life, and it’s what happens.  You think you’ve got it all figured out, all the ducks nicely lined up and contingency plans for the stragglers, then a bowling ball rolls through.

Life, damn it.  But it still beats the alternative.

OctoPi: the Face-Time Continuum

1 07 2014
From the Concardia set designed by Michael Whitehouse.

From the Concardia set designed by Michael Whitehouse.

I’ve been fond of Pi-Con since I first discovered this friendly little con held in Enfield, CT.  Some of my best con experiences have been there, or on route there.  Also, some of my most memorable experiences (e.g., Hurricon).  Being invited to 8Pi-Con as their “Guest of Awesome” was surprising and flattering, so I was especially looking forward to it this year.  And, once again, they managed to out-do themselves with friendliness, hospitality, and intellectual chocolate.

Our hosts made sure there was something for everyone.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

Our hosts made sure everyone felt welcome — no matter who they were or what their tastes might be. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

A newbie to Pi-Con came to the post-con feedback session and spoke up to say how much he enjoyed the con.  He said he was nervous at first, but was welcomed almost instantly and swept up in the experience.  “It isn’t as all cliquish,” he said.  And I think that may be one of the most important things that characterizes Pi-Con.  If there’s a knot of folks talking about something, and you wander over, it isn’t like what I’ve experienced at some cons, where you’re given a fishy, evaluating eye, being judged whether you are qualified to join the conversation.  Instead, you are much more likely to get noticed and dragged in with eager inclusion.  Pi-Con is the convention equivalent of a conga line.  Everybody is having a ball, and they’ll pull you out of your chair or your spot in the shadows against the wall and cheer you into the line.

As Guest of Awesome, I got included in the planning stages this year.  I helped out here and there over the prior weeks, not doing all that much.  Then I saw the frantic posts just before the con as they wracked their collective brains trying to figure out how to transport some large pieces of equipment from their storage facility in Somerville, MA to the con.  I hate driving anywhere within nuclear blast distance of Boston, but realized they were in a pickle and I could help.  So I ended up going down a day early to meet a couple of the staff folk and get seven-foot grids strapped to the roof of my car and every spare inch inside packed with boxes and sound equipment.  It all went smoothly and I made it to the hotel by nine o’clock Thursday evening.

photo courtesy Lisa Amowitz

photo courtesy Lisa Amowitz

I was rooming with last year’s Pi-Con Guest of Awesome, Broad Universe president Trisha Wooldridge (she’s also a senior editor for Spencer Hill Press and a published writer).  So there was an awful lot of awesome in that room.  What made it even grander was that we were in Rm. 221.  Of course a “B” had to be added to it.  (And, in classic Pi-Con spirit, when someone on the staff noticed this, they had to renumber the Board Room next door as “221A”.)

Trisha and I were joined by Lisa Amowitz, another author with Spencer Hill and a panelist at the convention.  Trisha and Lisa were there early, too, participating in a publisher’s retreat in the same hotel.  So we settled in the room that evening together, staying up until one am drinking Scotch and playing Cards Against Humanity.

Stories for every taste and disposition, from Broad Universe and Spencer Hill Press

Stories for every taste and disposition, from Broad Universe and Spencer Hill Press

The first day of a con is like when the circus comes to town.  Everything is exciting as the roustabouts set up the tents and the animals roar and trumpet (in our case, it was vendors setting up shop and tech people roaring and trumpeting at one another (and at con chair Jeff Warner) making sure sound systems worked and rooms had the equipment presenters needed.  By mid-afternoon the registration table was in place and attendees were starting to arrive.  Some panelists rolled in at the last minute.  I was out for a stroll and encountered David Larochelle driving in circles in the parking lot searching for a space less than an hour before his “How to Think Good” panel (with Ari Alpert, Carl Fink and Dr. James Prego; I checked out the panel and it was good indeed, the discussion centering around common errors in thinking and how to use the methodologies of science to correct them.)

Broad Universe knows how to feed a party.  Photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Broad Universe knows how to feed a party. Photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

There are, of course parties, as there are at any con worth its salt.  The place to be Friday night was the Broad Universe party ( held in our room in Dealer’s Row which doubled as the Broad Universe and Spencer Hill Press outlet).  Heads up, people:  If you ever go to a con and see that Broad Universe is having a party, you must go and bring your appetite.  They always have the best food.  No bowls of taco chips and salsa from a jar; no supermarket trays of boring veggies and dip.  BU offers things like Oreo cookie cheesecakes, cucumber sandwiches, pickled asparagus, eggplant dip, and other delicacies.  And chocolate.  Always chocolate, in assorted varieties, with and without nuts.  Actually, there are always nuts.  They are generally in charge of the room.

At one point we had a magician named Jeff Kempton pop in.  He was with the burlesque show going on the “main tent”, but ended up coming back to the BU party after his gig to wow us with his tricks and comic patter.  Should you ever need a magician, he does not have a website, but you can contact him by email at magicmanjeff@yahoo.com.

Overheard: "The wifi in my dress doesn't work."  This was the dress.  And she got it to work.

Overheard: “The wifi in my dress doesn’t work.” This was the dress. And she got it to work. Fabulous frock designed and worn by Artist Guest of Honor, Sarah Morrison.

My schedule was rather a marathon, so I didn’t have the opportunity to attend a lot of the events and panels going on, like mask-making, the drum circle, filking, costuming, the sari-wrapping workshop, and belly-dancing for nerds, not to mention the other vendors selling cool books, outfits, dorkware and gear.  For a small con, it was amazing all the stuff going on.

At 11am on Saturday I had the privilege of doing an interview with Allen Steele, the writer guest of honor who, aside from being a prolific and multiple award-winning author, is a tireless promoter of the human exploration of space.  He was easy to interview.  I just needed to wind him up and let him go.  I fed him the topics he loves to discuss: Space, first contact, and how we are going to get there.  With the US government backing away from space in an appalling abdication of intelligent leadership responsibility, it will fall to the private sector and perhaps cooperative ventures among various other governments to get the job done.  First contact may be risky (Stephen Hawking has warned that it may not go at all well for us) but Allen is cautiously optimistic.

We had a few minutes left at the end of the hour, so I mentioned that Allen had done a short stint as a Washington correspondent back in the 80s, and asked him what he took away from that.  He grinned, talked a bit about how he arrived there with high hopes, only to beat a hasty retreat.  Then he told us the story of how his picture ended up on the front page of the newspaper as he shuffled past the White House, apparently bent into the teeth of a wild winter storm going on at the time.  What the photographer did not know was that Allen was not fighting against the wind, but fighting for his life, attempting to give himself the Heimlich maneuver after wolfing down too quickly a hot dog purchased from a street vendor.  (He succeeded, which why he lives to tell the tale.)

Allen Steele, Vikki Ciaffone, Catt Kingsgrave and Grant Carrington talking about Blue Collar Science Fiction.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

Allen Steele, Vikki Ciaffone, Catt Kingsgrave and Grant Carrington talking about Blue Collar Science Fiction. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

After that great beginning, I went on to a blur of panels and events, including the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading (which I recorded for a future BroadPod podcast) and the Panel in the Pool, which is a tradition moderated by Jeff Warner and set literally in the hotel pool with participants in bathing suits.  Watery subjects are discussed, this time the remarkable news, recently released, about Ctenophores or comb jellyfish, which it turns out aren’t really jellyfish at all.  In fact, genomic sequencing reveals that they are from a different branch of the Earthly evolutionary tree altogether.  Among other things that make them remarkable, they have evolved a nervous system that uses a completely different chemical language, which developed independently from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Photo courtesy of Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Alligator attack. Photo courtesy of Kristi Petersen Schoonover

We spent a happy hour splashing in the pool and discussing the implications for alien life forms and where in the solar system (or indeed in the universe) we may be likely to find alien life.  Crikey the alligator, as is also the tradition, lurked nearby in the bushes, but was silent on the subject.  He was waiting.  To attack.

The elegant Steampunk Tea, to which I had been invited, was directly after the Panel in the Pool, so I wrapped myself in my Dr. Who bathrobe and hustled on over.  I felt terribly out of place among all the posh costumes and assorted frippery, but in good Pi-Con form, I was made to feel welcome by organizer Deb Chowdhury and the experts who were serving proper cups of tea to go with our scones, fruit and clotted cream.  I tried not to drip on the scones.

Incidentally, I owe a great debt to Jeff Warner.  He knows why.

George William Claxton, Vikki Ciaffone, ML Brennan and Roberta Rogow talk about Uncle Abdul's Planet Emporium.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

George William Claxton, Vikki Ciaffone, ML Brennan and Roberta Rogow talk about Uncle Abdul’s Planet Emporium. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

My panels all went well, with interested and engaged audiences (and we didn’t have to adjourn to the bar once due to the members of the panel outnumbering the audience, as is con protocol).  Thanks to Lisa Evans, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Kate Kaynak, Dr. James Prego, Grant Carrington, Allen Steele, Mario Di Giacomo, Ellen Larson, and Michelle Wexelblat who contributed their opinions and expertise to those conversations.  Our last one for Saturday was “Asexuality: the Ultimate Taboo?” which took place at 9 that evening.  I was pessimistic about the attendance, seeing as we were up against “Machinery of Joy”, a panel on robot sex, with Grant Carrington, Jennifer Pelland and George W. Claxton, very stiff competition indeed (ahem).  Ellen, Michelle and I sat at the table, gloomily resigned to being upstaged, then watched in astonishment as the room began to fill up.  To our amazement it was the other panel that had to give up and adjourn for lack of interest.  Dear me.  I did feel badly for Jen, George and Grant, but I must confess, our victory was sweet.  What was even better though, was what happened at the panel.  It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions where people had come, not knowing quite why or what to expect, and left with profound insights about themselves and others.

TJ Wooldridge reding from her latest release, "Silent Starsong", at the Broad universe Rapid Fire Reading.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

TJ Wooldridge reading from her latest release, “Silent Starsong”, at the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

I know I learned a lot, and was frankly stunned to find out just how many people out there identify as, or at least can relate to some aspect of being asexual.  Individuals admitted to feeling awkward and pressured into entering into sexual relationships with partners they are romantically involved with, even though they are far more into it for the love and companionship than for the sex.  It’s expected; if you don’t desire someone physically, they presume it isn’t “true love.”  I honestly had no idea, and I had the impression many members of the audience didn’t know it was a thing, either.  But they started “coming out” all over the place.  Because this was the last panel of the day, and no one else needed the room, many folks hung around to talk long after.  Michelle Wexelblat, who is a clinical social worker, was deeply interested and moved down into the audience to talk with them.  I stayed for a while, but then had to go.  It had been a long day and I was burned out.  Besides, Barfleet was calling.

Yours truly, photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Yours truly, photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Okay, I’ve ranted about Barfleet often enough in past post-con posts that I won’t bore my readers with more of it here.  Suffice to say, they host parties at select conventions that can’t be beat.  Music, fabulous drinks, and an atmosphere which fits perfectly with the Pi-Con tradition of friendly, safe and inclusive.  No cameras allowed, because they want folks to feel safe letting themselves relax and explore the perhaps naughtier parts of their nature.  No harassment allowed either, again, because they are determined that their guests feel safe.  Operation Hammond is on call (“Nerds helping nerds in times of need”) for those who have a bit too much fun, or make the mistake of sampling an excess of horta or speaking aloud the name of Y-T (I just learned the significance of this Barfleet drinking ritual and am sworn to secrecy).

There are a number of Barfleet chapters spread across the country; our local one is the UBS Shameless, with Captain Rhandom Bhagczech who, by the way, recently had a baby.  (The Captain brought the bairn by earlier in the day and I got to meet her.  I’m not much for babies, but damned if this wasn’t cutest little bugger I ever did see.)  There was much speculation as to whether the party would come off as planned, after multiple debacles at Arisia.  But they did everything right this time, and it went off without a hitch.  They had the customary raffle for charity at the end of the night, and although I did not win the official UBS Shameless shirt, I managed to bribe the woman who did win it to surrender it to me, and there was much rejoicing.  Their regular DJ was not on hand, but they improvised very nicely using a laptop and good speakers, so although they did not have the Safety Dance, I was able to request it by supplying it on my iPod.  (Because I always request the Safety Dance at Barfleet.)

Vikki Ciaffone, Allen Steele, Trisha Wooldridge, Kate Kaynak and Kristi Petersen Schoonover, Developing Deep Characters in Spec-Fic panel.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

Vikki Ciaffone, Allen Steele, Trisha Wooldridge, Kate Kaynak and Kristi Petersen Schoonover, Developing Deep Characters in Spec-Fic panel. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

Sunday morning I dragged myself out of bed (not hungover, I’ll have you know!) sleep-deprived and suffering from Last Day at the Con syndrome.  Although the consuite generally does not open until 9am, I took a chance and wandered down there at 8:30 and lo!  What to my wondering eyes did appear but fresh coffee, scones, and other assorted yummies. I wept with joy and praised the name of Terry Franklin, who manages the consuite.  Bless you, bless you, dear Terry!

"Fiction has no Place in Our Curriculum" panel, L to R: Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Justine Graykin, Kristi Petersen Schoonover.  Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

“Fiction has no Place in Our Curriculum” panel, L to R: Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Justine Graykin, Kristi Petersen Schoonover. Photo courtesy Lori Claxton

Fortified for the day, I went forth to my final three panels where I Fell Behind the J-curve with Grant Carrington, Ari Alpert and David Larochelle, Built Better Gods with George Claxton and Vikki Ciaffone, and protested Fiction having no place in the Common Core Curriculum with Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, and Kristi Petersen Schoonover.  (I felt impoverished with merely two names at that last one.)   I had gone into the Common Core panel fully prepared with all sorts of info provided by my husband, Larry, who is an activist teacher of middle school Language Arts and working hard to raise awareness about high-stakes standardized testing in general and Common Core in particular.  (He’s a member of BAT — Badass Teacher Association — and will be a part of a march on DC late in July.)  But Kristi trumped me handily, coming in armed with reams of print-outs packed with facts and figures.  It was a lively, heartening discussion and a great way to wind up the con for me.  I left feeling that there’s hope for public education after all, and with luck and stubborn persistence we may be able to turn the corporate tide.

Other interesting items for sale in the BU/SHP Dealer's Room.  Photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Other interesting items for sale in the BU/SHP Dealer’s Room. Photo courtesy Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Back to the Broad Universe Dealer’s Room, where there were tasty snacks and steady traffic.  At one point several members of the Barfleet crew, including the Captain, came down to say hello and buy books.  They picked up copies of my own Archimedes Nesselrode, and cleaned us out of UnCONventional, the con-themed anthology put out by Spencer Hill Press which mentions Barfleet in the acknowledgements as the inspiration for the collection (and includes a short story of mine).  The Captain also shared the beta prototype of a Cards Against Humanity deck they are working on called “Oh the Humanity” which will be, of course, Barfleet-themed.  More on that as news comes in, but I am tickled to say I have my own card in it.

Alas, all too quickly it was over.  At the feedback session the praises of the staff were sung, for there were remarkably few snafus.  The torch was passed from Jeff Warner to Michael Whitehouse, who will be 9Pi-Con’s chaircreature, and dates for the next year were announced: mark your calendars for April 24-26, 2015.  Michael Whitehouse, by the way, aside from handling registration and other odds and ends, created the Concardia deck for the con, with beautifully designed cards (a representative sample is at the opening of this post).

Time to pack up and go home, and that would have been an uneventful business if not for the fact that I now needed to deliver back to storage that which I had earlier liberated for the event.  I found my way to the storage facility without incident, the gear was off-loaded and put away, and I received quick tips for how best to get back to the highway.  There my luck failed me. NY vs. Boston

Yes, it was partly due to fatigue, prolonged sleep-deprivation and general post-con mental fogginess on my part.  But it’s also largely due to Boston.  There are good reasons why many people, myself included, hate driving anywhere near Boston.  After studying my maps, my directions, struggling to identify unidentified streets, following signs for I-93 which led to intersections with no clue of which way to turn, getting trapped in cul-de-sacs and on one-way streets going the wrong way, I finally wept with joy as I achieved the ramp to the highway, going, blessedly, in the right direction.

There you have it, Octo-Pi summarized, which is a task roughly comparable to summarizing Proust.  A few other shout-outs to the folks who helped make this my best con ever: Inanna Arthen, who did the herculean job of figuring out the programming grid, Beck Prigot, for alligator wrangling, David Silber and Rick Kovalcik for grid wrangling, also Lisa Hertel, Abby Noyce, and Tom Traina for, well, stuff.  You, and Jeff and Debi and all the rest, you’re the ones who are awesome.  Not me.

See you next year.

Countdown to 8Pi-Con

19 06 2014


One week until I leave for Pi-Con, the friendliest little convention in New England, and quite possibly my favorite.  This year I’m particularly excited about going, as Pi-Con has invited me to be their Guest of Awesome.  I’ll be cruising down to Enfield, CT next Thursday, by way of Somerville, MA, where I’ll be taking on cargo to be transported to the convention.  Once at the hotel, I’ll be sharing a room with last year’s Guest of Awesome, Trisha Wooldridge, The President of Broad Universe.  Bring your sunglasses, folks, lest you be blinded by all that brilliance in one room.

My schedule, I must say, is rather daunting:

6:00pm     Reading Aloud Workshop
10:00pm   Reading (with Lisa Evans)
11:00am Interview with Allen Steele (Guest of Honor)
12:00pm  How Do We Make Cons Safe for Everyone? Lisa Evans, Justine Graykin, Shira Lipkin (M), Pygment, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert
2:00pm     Panel in the Pool: Aliens of the Seas Jeff Warner, Justine Graykin
3:00pm    Steampunk Tea
5:00pm     Saying ‘Hi’ and Other Forms of Social Interaction  Justine Graykin, Kate Kaynak, Dr. James Prego, Pygment (M)
6:00pm     The Line Between Realism and Boring  Grant Carrington, Mario Di Giacomo, Justine Graykin (M), Allen Steele
7:00pm    Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading
9:00pm  Asexuality: the Ultimate Sexual Taboo?  Justine Graykin (M), Ellen Larson, Pygment
10:00am Falling Behind the J-Curve  Ari Alpert, Grant Carrington, Justine Graykin (M), David Larochelle
11:00am Building Better Gods  Vikki Ciaffone, George W. Claxton (M), Justine Graykin
12:00pm Fiction has no Place in Our Curriculum  Justine Graykin, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Kristi Petersen Schoonover

As you can see, I’ll be sharing the mic with some mighty cool folks.  Friday I’ll be doing a workshop on reading aloud, helping folks to stop worrying and get past stage fright.  Then I get to do a demonstration with my own work.  Probably I’ll read from Archimedes Nesselrode yet again, although soon I’ll be switching to promote new work coming out soon.  How soon?  That question might best be asked of the NH Pulp folks, whose Love Free or Die” anthology (including my short story “Unbranding”) is imminent.  Hoped to have copies of that for the convention, but alas, ’tis not to be.  I will, however, have copies of Roberta Gregory’s True Cat Toons, real stories of real cats and their people, which includes the tale of my Twin Black Demons of Chaos.

I get to start off a marathon on Saturday by interviewing SF writer Allen Steele, the Guest of Honor.  After that, it’s a gallop from room to pool to room.  That’s right, after a busy morning I’ll be relaxing in the pool for a hydrated panel which Jeff  Warner describes thusly: ‘Recent reports from neurobiologists on the results of genomic sequencing of comb jellyfish reveal that Ctenophores are from a different branch of the Earthly evolutionary tree. “Parallel Evolution of a Nervous System but with a completely different chemical language, evolving independently from the rest of the animal kingdom.”  Join us Floaters, Sinkers, and Punters in a giant container of DiHydrogen Monoxide as we generate lots of hot air!’  About as close to alien life forms on our own world as we can get.

Directly after that, we’ll be attending the Steampunk Tea, and endeavor not to drip on the scones.  Thus refreshed, I shall wax eloquent on the topics of Social Interaction for the Shy and Awkward, walking the fine line between making your work realistic but still surprising and exciting (with Allen Steele!), recording the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, and winding up speaking the unspeakable, namely, that maybe everybody doesn’t do it after all, and it’s actually okay.  After that I am going to Barfleet and chug the horta.

Then, on Sunday, there’s “Falling behind the J-curve”, which is all about dealing with technological innovation that outpaces one’s ability to keep up.  Let’s face it, my brain plasticity ain’t what it used to be.  At 11 am I look forward to building better gods, and it’s about time.  The old ones are getting pretty worn out.  Lastly I and my fellow panelists will talk about the decline of the importance of literature and fictional narratives in school curricula, and the assault on education in general.  Science Fiction, where we have dreamed some of our greatest and bravest dreams, has always been marginalized in favor of Literature.  But now even Literature is taking a back seat as Common Core tries to cram non-fiction down the throats of students whether it’s developmentally appropriate or not.

There’s way more, like costumes and a drum circle, and Dealers peddling their wares, authors selling their books, parties and filking, gaming and LARPs, and darn it all, I hope I can fit in a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity.  All with the friendliest gaggle of geeks you’re ever likely to come across.  So, if you’re free next weekend and live in the greater Enfield area, come check it out.  (Here’s where it’s at.)

Now, I got to pack up my Winged Snake.  I’ll report back after the con.



Are you a boy or a girl?

16 06 2014

Right Bathroom?

There is something deeply hardwired in us that demands an answer to that question.  It is the first thing we take note of whenever we meet a new person.  At birth or even before, it’s the first thing to be established, the first, biggest piece of your identity.  Even when meeting somebody’s pet, we want to get the pronoun right.  To help us along, we color-code our children and choose pink and purple when buying a collar for our female dog or cat.

There are silly but very telling examples of this.  In the popular online game Team Fortress 2 there is a character called Pyro who goes about heavily covered head to boot in fireproof gear.  The persona for the character is that of a frightening, psychotic maniac who scares even fellow teammates.  In a particularly perverse and intriguing move, Valve, the creators of TF2, are deliberated coy about Pyro’s gender.  They salt the backstory of the game with “clues” that imply Pyro might be female.  The result is fascinating.

There is an on-going debate about it on discussion boards that won’t go away in spite of several efforts to end it by definitively “proving” that Pyro is male.  All tongue-in-cheek of course, and yet some folks get extremely upset and adamant about it.  The very suggestion that this character might not be clearly defined as male seems somehow threatening, and Valve refuses to settle it.

Why does this matter so to people?

A particularly butch lesbian working as a waitress gets asked by a very young child, “Are you a boy or a girl?”  The child’s parents are horrified, but in truth they’d be asking the same thing if they weren’t too polite.  The question becomes an aggressive accusation, dripping with contempt, when asked by people who wish to imply that a person’s gender ambiguity is immoral and upsetting.  Even commentators who are trying to be even-handed get all caught up in the pronoun problem.  Do they call a transgender person by their birth gender or their assumed gender?  Which do you use for a cross-dresser?  It becomes a dilemma of grand proportion to people.

As I shared what I was writing with my son, since I was making reference to one of his favorite games, he rolled his eyes and sighed.  “You call them whatever they want to be called,” he said like it was obvious.  “What does it matter?”

Bless his heart.

One hopes that we can, as a society, someday reach that same level of equanimity with respect to gender.  But I think that may be the best that we can hope for.  Even if we are content to let gender identification be a matter of self-declaration and not imposed from without; even if we move beyond standard gender roles and color-coding our pets and kids (and it’s a perverse blow for equality of the sexes that fans can seriously entertain the possibility that Pyro could be female); we still need to have the label.  At our deepest level, we don’t want a genderless pronoun.

However we arrive at the conclusion, we need to know if it’s a boy or a girl.

Accessing the Other

28 05 2014

solipsismAfter coming across a reference to it in a book I was reading on theories of mind (Figments of Reality, to be precise) I decided to dig up and reread Thomas Nagel’s famed essay, What is it like to be a bat?” Simply expressed, Nagel muses on the impossibility of knowing the experiences of a different mind, for example, that of a bat. Bats are mammals, and share many similar senses and brain structures with their fellow mammal, humans. But their perceptions of the world are largely auditory, where ours are visual. A bat, flying towards a post in the dark, perceives it as its brain interprets the clicks and shrieks of echolocation. A person walking up to that same post in the light of day perceives it based on the brain’s interpretation of variations in wavelength of light reflected off the post. They perceive the same post, but their mental experience of it is likely very different.

I taste a sample of a friend’s cooking. Ugh, I think, coriander. My friend’s experience of coriander is very different from mine (Yum, not ugh). A tiny, minor genetic variant is thought to be responsible for this split between us.  A physical difference makes it impossible for us to have the same experience of the same thing. We don’t need to be different species; I can never imagine what she’s experiencing when she tastes coriander and smiles.

Nor can I know how a blind person experiences the world any more than I can put myself into the mind of a whale. The only world I can know is the one I perceive, and I can only guess what others are experiencing. Even if I’m dealing with a person of similar background and sensory abilities, I can’t be sure she hears the same thing I do when we listen to a piece of music. Even if it isn’t coriander effect, and her sensory apparatus is identical to mine, she can still love a particular song that I can’t stand. The brain may be processing precisely the same sound waves, but the mind in residence is not having the same experience of them.

This is a short hop from solipsism.  Our isolation inside our own heads can understandably lead to the suspicion that everything outside might be just an illusion, including the existence of other minds. Dear Zeus, has science fiction and literature worn that trope to death! It also makes both appealing and threatening the idea of telepathy. If one could only press one’s fingers to the temple of another being and be reassured that other minds do exist and can be communicated with (simultaneously, it can be profoundly distressing to imagine the primal privacy of one’s mind being breached).

Never mind knowing what it’s like to be a bat; what a leap it would be to know what it’s like to be another person.

The phenomenon of a conscious mind arises out of a staggeringly complex choreography of biology, culture, interaction and experience. The back and forth arms race of evolution has sculpted organisms which are able to make presumptions about what is going on in other minds. Social species depend for their survival on being able to relate to one another. True solipsism is an interesting thought exercise which can get out of hand and lead to mental illness.  We make the leap to assume the existence of other minds like ours for the same reason that we assume the world we perceive is real and not an illusion. Those assumptions are necessary for us to succeed and thrive.

So here I am inside my head, trying to figure out what’s going on in your head or the head of the cat who insists on sprawling across my arm as I type. I can use words to try to facilitate communication, but often we can go late into the night trying to reach an agreement and fail because we just don’t see eye to eye. We brood afterwards, frustrated that the other person doesn’t seem to get what we are trying to say about how we feel and what is important to us.

Yet my cat can get me to realize what is on his mind, a desire for food (not that food; ugh) or attention, or his anxiety that I am about to leave (I got out the suitcase or backpack). Empathy and our finely tuned skills of interpretation enable us to make pretty accurate assumptions about the mental states of others and act on them with reasonably good success. The Golden Rule presumes that. I’d be very sad if my wallet were stolen, so I can understand why you would be sad should it happen to you, and it’s good to have rules against theft.

Somehow, imperfectly, we blunder through, making our guesses about what others are experiencing and acting accordingly. Some of us seem to do a much better job than others. I’ll confess I am often utterly defeated by my inability to understand what it’s like to be somebody else, to understand experiences different from my own, to know what their mind expects of my mind and communicate how my mind is experiencing them. It’s exhausting and frustrating.

And yet, when I reflect on how radically individual and isolated all these conscious minds are, I am amazed at how well we do accessing the mind of the other.

It’s Complicated

12 05 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 12.14.27 PMI had to take a day and just regroup. I was haunted by anxiety, overwhelmed by details, feeling like I was clinging to a cork in white-water rapids. Those obnoxious, if well-intended little inspirational messages preaching Take Time For Yourself, Simplify Your Life, Slow Down and Appreciate the Beauty of Things kept showing up on my feed, reminding me incessantly of the impossibility of following their blithe advice.

Sure, if you have the luxury of being able to say, “I’ll just blow off those commitments I made to my friends/family/associates/community,” then you can sit with that cup of tea and listen to the birdsong, have that glass of wine on the deck, watch that sunrise or whatever. You can schedule “You” time and not feel guilty about it.

Never mind those other inspirational messages telling you how you need to care, you need to act, only you can change the world for the better, get out and get active or the bad guys will win.

Never mind those articles you read about how important it is to be there for your kids, to work hard on relationships and friendships, to listen, to reach out to people, to be compassionate.

Or how important it is to take time to exercise every day, to cook wholesome food from scratch, to read books, to meditate, to take time with your appearance, to shop carefully and read labels, to do regular breast exams, to brush and floss after every meal.

Or how important it is if you want to be a successful writer (or whatever) in today’s competitive world you need to get your name out there, market aggressively, write blogs and articles, get involved in organizations, attend workshops, retreats and classes, go to conventions, read marketing blogs and articles, devote time every day to social networking as well as keep cranking out the material and submitting it.

I’ve gotten so that the morning dawns and I dread facing it, because I know I’m going to go to bed that night feeling like I’ve failed to do even a small part of what I ought to have done. I won’t have spent enough time being there for my kids and devoting myself to my spouse. If I took the time to exercise, I won’t have gotten in the social networking. If I finished the revisions to the short story, I didn’t get to making that wholesome dinner and planning meals for the week. I meditated, but I didn’t get to the volunteer work for the (insert worthy organization here).

The world is filled with misery and injustice. My “friends” on Facebook can’t wait to share the latest pathetic puppy or homeless cat that needs adoption, the latest disease or disability I need to be more aware of, the latest outrageous thing the GOP/Christian Fundies/Right-wing loonies/gun nuts/greedy corporations/Supreme Court/corrupt politicians have said or done. Kidnapped schoolgirls, rapes in India, war and aggression and terrorist attacks. And everybody tells me I need to get involved, I need to care, I need to do something about it, and I am a bad person if I don’t. Martin Niemoller keeps getting thrown at me (“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up…” etc. etc.). I weep with helpless ineffectuality because all I can manage is some Slacktivist sharing of memes and signing of Internet petitions. Evil will triumph because I didn’t do enough to stop it.

Jesus ConundrumThere is a scene in Jesus Christ Superstar (It’s on my mind, as we recently watched the new production with Tim Minchin as Judas) right after Jesus has thrown the moneylenders out of the temple. He is gradually surrounded by people begging to be helped and healed. The crowd gets thicker, the chorus of voices pleading for attention swells as Jesus struggles to deal with them, saying, “There’s too little of me, too many of you–” and finally, overwhelmed and mobbed, he shouts, “Heal yourselves!”

That’s how I feel right now.

Okay, sure, I need to prioritize. But how do I choose when everyone clamoring for me to adopt their pet priority has a valid point? There is no clear guideline for what is right, no guarantee I’ll make the correct choice, that I won’t look back and regret that I didn’t spend more time doing something else.

“Me” time just becomes one more voice in the mix clamoring for attention, one more thing which, if chosen, means I neglect something else. But I guess it beats laying curled up on the bathroom floor weeping from indecision and guilt.

Terri Bruce: Thereafter

6 05 2014
Click to buy

Click to buy

Guest blog from author Terri Bruce, talking about her book Thereafter, the second in her “Afterlife Series” (the first title being Hereafter). A bit of introduction for those who might not be familiar with the series; it goes something like this:

Nothing in life is free. Turns out, nothing in the afterlife is, either.

When recently-deceased Irene Dunphy decided to “follow the light,” she thought she’d end up in Heaven or Hell and her journey would be over.

Boy, was she wrong.

She soon finds that “the other side” isn’t a final destination but a kind of purgatory where billions of spirits are stuck, with no way to move forward or back. Even worse, deranged phantoms known as “Hungry Ghosts” stalk the dead, intent on destroying them. The only way out is for Irene to forget her life on earth—including the boy who risked everything to help her cross over—which she’s not about to do.

As Irene desperately searches for an alternative, help unexpectedly comes in the unlikeliest of forms: a twelfth-century Spanish knight and a nineteenth-century American cowboy. Even more surprising, one offers a chance for redemption; the other, love. Unfortunately, she won’t be able to have either if she can’t find a way to escape the hellish limbo where they’re all trapped.

Now, here’s Terri to tell you a bit about one particularly interesting aspect of Thereafter.

Thank you so much, Justine, for having me on your blog today. I’m super excited to be here to talk about the main setting of Thereafter—the creepy, dead forest!

The long, slow, death march feeling returned. She walked for a long time now without seeing the cat, continuing in a straight, uninterrupted line. The landscape eventually emptied out. The pavement faded away to a hard, gray ground that crunched underfoot, as if covered by frost, and the buildings became sparser until they were replaced with stark, black, leafless trees with twisted trunks, dark and pitted like they had been burned.

Soon even this scenery became vague and ill-defined. Irene wasn’t sure if it was simply that the dull gray sky melted into the dull, gray ground giving no sense of a horizon, or if the world really was fading away, but she could only see about a hundred yards ahead. Beyond that, the landscape simply melted away. Not fog or mist, exactly; it was more like there simply wasn’t anything there, as if the scenery was being created as she went.

Occasionally, she would see a pile of the beach stones on the ground or another person flashing between the black trees at a distance. Some instinct kept her following the cat, even though she desperately longed for some company. This eerie, somber wood was starting to wear on her; she felt weighed down, as lifeless and gray as her surroundings, filled with an unnamed melancholy.

After a while, she stopped for a rest. She had no idea how long she’d been walking. According to the Mickey Mouse watch strapped to her wrist—another present from Jonah—it had been a few hours. However, she had no way of knowing if the watch was still working, and the unchanging light around her gave no indication of whether time was actually passing.

My “Afterlife” series, of which Thereafter is the second book, combines afterlife mythology and customs from every culture and religion. For Thereafter, and particularly the dead forest, I drew heavily on Sumerian, Buddhist, and Japanese mythology. The Sumerians described the afterlife as drab, gray, and washed out, where the food was “as dust” and so were the people. While that sounds like a really awful place to have to visit, as a writer I couldn’t help but be drawn to such a vivid and visceral description. I knew I had to use it in a story.

In Japanese ghost lore, forests filled with slimy black trees often play a pivotal role—ghosts of drowned maidens and women who died in child birth often lure unwary travelers to a black tree, where the traveler is killed (often by being hung from the tree). I combined these two elements together to create the gray, horizon-less land of Thereafter, populated with black, desiccated trees. I wanted the feeling in this scene to be one of despair, as if all happiness had been drained from this world; I wanted Irene (and the reader) to feel dead. While writing this opening scene of Irene marching numbly through the forest as her despair grows, I listened to Florence and the Machine’s “Heavy in Your Arms” over and over and over. It definitely helped set the mood; sometimes a little too well. This was definitely one of the most depressing things I’ve ever written.

But setting the setting didn’t end there; to the surreal (and depressing) dead forest was layered an additional element pulled from the Buddhist state of Bardo—the sense that nothing there is real. The Buddhist state of Bardo in an indeterminate state a soul enters upon death; in Bardo, the spirit grapples with demons and visions that are manifestations of the spirit’s subconscious. That is, nothing in Bardo is real, just the demons we inflict on ourselves. In Thereafter, nothing in the forest is as it seems, and, in most cases, may not even be real. Irene touches one of the trees and hears a choir of children singing. The trees aren’t really trees—they are her mind’s way of interpreting something that it can’t fully see, only sense. After all, Irene is dead. She no longer has a physical body, which means she doesn’t have physical eyes, so how can she really see anything?

While the dead forest of Thereafter is terribly bleak and depressing, I have to say I’m quite proud of myself for being able to combine elements from such disparate mythologies/cultures into one cohesive whole. Sometimes, writing this series feels a bit looking cooking—I take a dash of this and a handful of that and then season with a pinch of this and…ta da! Something new and interesting!  There can be challenges to combining so many different and diverse mythologies, but when they come together so perfectly, as they did in the dead forest, it feels really great. I hope that readers agree!

Terri Bruce is doing a blog tour during the month of May to promote her book.  She’s also holding a Launch Party Blog Tour Giveaway May 1st – May 31st with 2 $50 Amazon gift cards and 5 signed paperback copies of Thereafter (U.S./Canada Only). Pop on over to Facebook to find out more, and follow her on her tour.



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