Listen to Old People About Tech

There’s an ongoing narrative that the only people who truly understand modern tech are the young. “They grew up with it,” people say. “They’re digital natives.”

They’ve been saying that for a long time now and it has been applied to every new-fangled invention, not just computers or smartphones. I mean, it was a thing with VCRs back when folks were still deciding between VHS and Betamax.

While I’m sure some kid whose mom stuck an iPad or smartphone in their hands to keep them occupied so she could have some peace and quiet is faster than I am at figuring out how new tech works, I don’t think this means they are more suited for making decisions about where tech is going.

The folks you really need to ask about digital tech are us Boomer and Gen-X types who dove into it when personal computers first showed up on the scene, plus the Millennials who came along shortly afterwards when computers were being used everywhere.

I got my first computer in 1983, which is more than 40 years ago. And I’ve been online since the mid-1990s, which is getting close to 30 years ago.

I’m not a techie and getting my Kaypro II was the last time I came anywhere close to being an early adopter. But I’ve been dealing with this stuff for more than half my life.

I watched the Internet become something back in the day when everyone was asking “but how will we make money out of it?” Then I watched the capitalists take over Silicon Valley. Now I’m watching the enshittification process.

Which is to say that I saw the genuine creative process that made the early years of the internet so exciting and now I’m seeing how that can be destroyed. Continue reading “Listen to Old People About Tech”

The End of Bruno and the Beginning of Something Wonderful

Twenty odd years ago, when we moved to San Francisco from New York, we bought a house. That flat statement doesn’t reflect the year of living in a rented flat, looking for a house that 1) met our inscrutable criteria for size, price, amenities (this above all: a garage!), proximity to public transport, and some degree of walkability. We were unbelievably fortunate that we sold our NYC apartment for enough to give us a competitive down payment, even in SF (which was then in a wave of utter insanity, real estate-wise). Still, what we wound up with was not one of the gorgeous Victorians with which San Francisco is blessed, but a modest two-bedroom house with a semi-finished attic which would do as a third bedroom, a garage, and a rather feral back yard. Over the years we have made improvements (a workable kitchen which is still my delight; new furnace, new water heater, new bathroom). And this week we started on a massive project: new back yard.

As I believe I have made clear in past posts, I am horticulturally impaired. I mean well. I have on occasion kept a plant (or, in college, several plants) alive for periods of time. I admire the gardens of other people. But I have no gardening imagination, and my attention span for nurturing the difficult or delicate is, um, nil. So whatever we did, it was going to be done by contractors, and it was not going to involve me out there with a trowel and a kneeling pad, carefully consigning plants into the earth.

After a considerable amount of shuffling around and talking to different people we settled on a landscape designer and began with a plan. The first thing was to rip everything out, down to the studs. There were several reasons for this. Most of the plants were not healthy, blackberry was invading from the back neighbor’s yard (coming up through the concrete patio and over the fence), the laundry-shed structure was ugly and rickety, and mostly what thrived was pigweed (aka amaranth). The concrete itself was in crappy condition. 

So: a complete redo, soup to nuts. Which started with taking the whole yard down to about a foot below its current level, the better to discourage invasive blackberry and other monsters: there will be a layer of plastic, then gravel, then a lot of sand, then pavers or plants.

After the initial estimate came out at… enough to buy a whole house in another less spendy part of the country… we scaled back our intentions. Above you see the initial plan for the pavers. The blank area to the right represents our house; the green circle is the one tree we’re keeping, right next to the back door. The triangular gray area will be the new patio, and the brown triangle is a pergola (shaded structure).

I have to say, both Danny and I found it hard to really wrap our heads around this as a “here’s what you’ll wind up with” model until we went out back (stepping carefully around the debris) and paced things out. Then we gave the designer some feedback, he made adjustments, and proceeded to send back an image with a rough planting plan thrown in. This time (maybe because there’s some color) I felt more comfortable. There’s a secondary seating area (in the lower left corner) and a “path” among the plantings.

What kind of plantings will there be? Not sure yet. We did specify one lemon tree to replace Bruno (the old, super-productive monster lemon tree that gave us lemons the size of my head, mostly pith and dry fruit). And we asked for native plants, things that don’t require a lot of maintenance. I wouldn’t be sad if there was some rosemary, which grows wild here. We’ll find out.

Right now we’re in demolition-land: the guys have spent the last week breaking up the better part of 1600 square feet of concrete. The laundry shed is gone, the decrepit washer and dryer, ditto. The unhealthy plants are a thing of the past. It’s a blank canvas.

I kind of enjoyed the homey sound of jackhammers, which to me call my childhood in New York City, where the noise was always a harbinger of something changing.

A life-changing moment with Cordwainer Smith

2005 was a low point for me: I had lost all my confidence. I was pretty certain that I was a failure in all things intellectual and that I couldn’t write, but I was still very determined to keep going. I stayed with what I loved, even when I was pushed to the side, time after time. People with a single course as an undergraduate ere given work ahead of my PhD in a field, and it hurt.

Everything I wrote that year and into 2006 has underlying rumbles of my lac of confidence. It took me a few more years to discover that the problem had never been with my intellect. Sometimes it was because I am chronically ill (and one is not supposed to be intellectually competent and ill, both), sometimes because I’m not male (such an Australian bias) and, most often, because I’m Jewish. Nice people don’t say antisemitic things… they simply leave Jews out of things, or choose someone ahead of them.

How did my self-image begin to change? When I was at a Melbourne science fiction convention, I was asked to join a panel on Cordwainer Smith. Not by the convention planners, but by the panel itself. I said something and Bruce Gillespie asked me to write it up. This is what I wrote for Bruce:

Cordwainer Smith: reflections on some of his themes

  1. Canberra and Norstrilia

Canberra in the 1960s was a mere kernel of the Canberra of 2005. It was small and green, mostly buildings and public parkland, surrounded by the enormous brown of rural Australia. This was the Canberra that Corndwainer Smith knew. Not the small internationalist city of today, with its sprawl of suburbs and its café culture, but an overgrown country town that just happened to be the seat of government for a whole country. You can see a sense of this Canberra in Smith’s work, the idea that Norstrilian government is more a set of social compacts than a formal hierarchy, the idea that family and inheritance counts (the earliest settlers in the area still farmed sheep on what are today mere suburbs, Kambah for instance was farmed by the Beattie family) and the ideal that the country is vast and brown and far diminishes the civilisation it nurtures.

There are other reflections of Australian life of the time in Smith’s work. Immigration, for instance.

While policies were much more open than it had been, the inheritance of the White Australia policy was still very apparent in the people of this country. Much of Australia was still white, still Anglo, and still very conservative. In many places, of which Canberra was one, walking down the street one could very easily assume that the only non-Anglos were diplomats, that Australia didn’t let any strangers cross the border unless they had proven their credentials.

This was not the reality. Cordwainer Smith came to Australia at the crucial moment when White Australia was being broken down – indigenous Australians were finally given voting rights, migrants came from places other than the United Kingdom. The effects of this change were not yet apparent, however, outside Melbourne and Sydney and places such as the Queensland canefields. The reality of Canberra in the 1960s was that the hydroelectric scheme and more open immigration policies were bringing more and more people from other parts of Europe into the region – but walking down a Canberra street, the feeling was still very much of the dominant ancestry being British.

The Australia Smith saw was very much the cultural blueprint for Norstilia, with its responsibility towards remembering the British Empire and preserving certain cultural values.

At that time, Australia had a very restrictive economic policy. This included a barrage of tariffs and customs restrictions that have since been phased out. It was openly admitted that these restrictions were to develop the local economy and to protect important elements of it – the Melbourne clothes industry was of particular importance, for instance.

The effect of these import restrictions on everyday life was very marked; Australia was wealthy, but not quite first world. We took a long time to adopt innovations from outside, and luxury goods were particularly highly taxed. At the same time, because food and accommodation were much cheaper than in many other countries and Australian workers worked shorter days, even the poorest person was said to be richer than wealthy people elsewhere, in terms of lifestyle.

Add this to an important religious factor: the default religion people wrote on their census data as Church of England, and the Queen was both head of the Church and head of State. The political crises of the 1970s which disputed and lessened the impact of the royal family had not yet happened, and the most important Prime Minister of the 1960s, Sir Robert Menzies, was a keen royalist. A keen royalist and rather autocratic leader – the exact mix that Cordwainer Smith struggles to describe from a slightly bemused outsider viewpoint in his depiction of Norstrilia.

To the surprised outsider, we could easily have looked like a country that practiced old-fashioned Church of England values. Very High Church – abstemious and full of self-restraint.

Internally, Australia was not really self-restrained. The slow adoption of new technologies such as television were largely because of the distance of Australia from the rest of the world combined with the tariff system. Smith was interpreting this from a High Church view, however, and would be astonished by the current Australia, where abstemiousness and low technology levels are rather absent.

What Smith saw was an Australia ruled by an innocent nobility with power that was mostly inexpressed. This is the source of the apparent abstemiousness as he described it. It showed more in Canberra than elsewhere. There were only two major industries in Canberra at that time: the public service (all national) and the university. Canberra fully understood the outside world, but its lifestyle in no way reflected it. There were secure incomes and workplaces, safe jobs, but not much in the way of luxury. Canberra was a hard place to get to, for a capital city, with only a local airport and only one train station, and it had an extraordinarily suburban lifestyle. It also had (and still has) like Norstrilia an unexpectedly large awareness of the outside world and a sophisticated understanding of how the trade barriers operated.

It is very hard not to see the Canberra of the time in Norstrilia: a place with a sophisticated understanding of the external world, cut off from it and surrounded by bleak but rich countryside dominated by some of the best sheep territory n the world. It is ironic that, well after Paul Linebarger died, Goulburn built its Giant Merino – an enormous grey tribute to the traditional source of wealth in the Canberra region.

  1. The importance of Abba-dingo

Abba-dingo is particularly important in understanding Cordwainer Smith’s constructed universe. It appears in his short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. Abba-dingo was a carnival head that took coins or tokens and gave prophecies.

Writers looking for the origins of Smith’s odd names suggest that Abba- comes from the words ‘Abba’ for father from Hebrew or Aramaic, and the Australian native dog, ‘dingo’. While this appeals to me because it calls forth an Australian phrase ‘Old Man Dingo’, I have to admit, that I have large problems with this etymology. I suspect that Abba-dingo comes from a word much closer to home for Paul Linebarger and gives strong indications as to how his religious views shape decision in his universe: it comes from the Book of Daniel.

In the Book of Daniel the king of Babylon visits Jerusalem. He finds several royal Jewish children both beautiful and wise, and he proposes to teach these children the lore of the Chaldeans. He had the children renamed. Azariah was renamed Abednego. Naturally Daniel was the hero of this tale, which is all about true prophecy, but Abednego is linked to the true prophecy and survives his stint in a furnace.

Cordwainer Smith makes the link between Abba-dingo and Abednego quite obvious, as Abednego by using the notion of the fiery furnace and in ‘Alpha ralpha Boulevard” the making the imprint of the prophecy by fire. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the King James Bible Abednego is always spelled Abed-nego and Smith divides Abba-dingo in the same way.

Abba-dingo then, is a closet reference to the Old Strong Religion. The head is an indication that the universe is planned, even when it looks like a game from a penny arcade. It refers back to the innocents and the holy being able to be given and to live the truth, even when they have no understanding of what is happening.

Cordwainer Smith has devised a predetermined universe based very much on a very High Church reading of the Bible. More than that, he writes a belief in the Select (chosen almost before their birth and with predestined accomplishments) eg D’Joan.

Much of his belief is not modern Church of England at all – it is, to me, very nineteenth century and fundamentalist. This is reflected in the nature of most of his short stories. They are Bunyanesque in feel. He emphasises this feel by the style he uses for the stories where the religion is an important component. He works with carefully built-up introductions and focuses on the inner meaning of lives rather than the individuality and personality of the people involved. This implies that these people are more important for the role they play than as game pieces to catch a reader’s eye.

The track of history and the meaning it all leads to is more important than the tale itself. Each story is, in fact, part of the monumental progress of humankind and animalkinds towards a future that Cordwainer Smith only hints at. Just like Moses, we don’t see Smith’s Holy Land except fro a distance – the voyage to it is more important.

What is important about the Bunyanesque progression is not the end of it. The aim is not to provide a guide to holy living or to a perfect future. Cordwainer Smith is not CS Lewis – his fiction does not preach.

What it provides is a mythical background to his novels. If you read all his short fiction then your read Norstrilia, you have the perfect structure for the assumptions that are made in the novel. He provides a legendary past and important indications of the future. This makes him look extraordinarily innovative, as his stories often use an allegorical or fairytale format rather than one more typical of the SF conventions of his time. Understanding those allegorical and fairytale formats and that legendary past and mythic background are important to understanding how to read the universe he created.

For instance, those indications give us important clues to certain characters (eg C’mell) and enable us to read far more into their behaviour and attribute more to their personalities than would otherwise be possible. Without the background, C’mell looks simply obedient and maybe a bit boring, regardless of her physical beauty, and her reward is the reward of dull virtue. When the reader understands that the Norstrilia section is only a small segment of her life, her reactions take on a much greater complexity.

The skill he brings to his more conventional writing highlights that these departures from convention are quite intentional. Cordwainer Smith was not writing a single novel: he was writing an allegorical universe with a complex history, and he was peopling it with real people (of various species) whose personalities and who capacity to determine their own lives were heavily affected by the allegorical nature of his universe.

Abba-dingo points to this. Cordwainer Smith uses the Abadnego joke to both indicate the religious allegory and to mock at it. Abba-dingo is, after all, only a fairground toy – how do we know that it is God speaking through a fairground mechanical or whether the author is using it as a cheap plot device.

This is the brilliance of Cordwainer Smith. He refers to his Old Strong Religion. He uses his Old Strong Religion. He shapes the whole story of D’Joan and the quest of Chaser O’Neill around a particularly archaic version of Protestant belief. All the traditional allegory and the Biblical and religious knowledge that was commonplace in his youth appears in his writing, from the land of Mizraim (Misr) to the need to forego the quest in order to achieve the true goal.

Yet all the while he uses these patterns, he mocks them. He makes it clear that his is an invented universe. He has his heroes play with space and time like gods, while indicating that they can’t possibly be gods. He creates his Vomact family in such a way that the ambivalence between good and evil is perennially pointed out: we don’t know until we are read a given story whether the Vomact will be hero or villain.

In showing the hand of the creator so very, very clearly, Cordwainer Smith casts doubt on his own allegories. He leaves it to the reader to think it through.

What’s at Stake?

I’m working on a sequel to For the Good of the Realm. My writing process includes reading back over what I’ve written not just to avoid actual writing (though of course that happens) but to understand what I’m doing.

I am a pantser through and through, so I not only figure out where something is going while I’m writing, I also sometimes understand what it is I’m actually doing when I read back over the work and realize what I did.

I’m sure this description of my process will drive other writers nuts, especially those whose mind works in linear paths. I don’t recommend it, but I seem to be stuck with it. I rarely know what I’m doing until I actually do it and sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until long after I’ve done it.

Anyway, in my latest re-read, I came upon this bit of dialogue:

“But real adventures only happen when everything is at stake,” Asamir replied. “That is what makes them adventures.”

I love those sentences. (That’s another nice feature of my process: every once in awhile I discover I’ve written something that I find spectacular. Sometimes I even say, “Wow. I wrote that?”)

When I wrote those words, they were just a bit of dialogue thrown in after Anna, the main character, has explained to her friends Asamir and Cecile just how challenging their mission was going to be. But looking back at it, I think it addresses something that’s very crucial to writing a good adventure story:

Something important must be at stake.

Continue reading “What’s at Stake?”

A Steve Jobs connection

I never met Steve Jobs, at least not that I knew of. If our paths crossed at Reed College, I never knew who he was. I’ve never owned an Apple computer, so I have no connection with him that way. Yet we share a deeper experience. We both had the honor and delight to study calligraphy at Reed College. (I believe Jobs actually studied with Bob Palladino, Lloyd’s student and successor, who continued his tradition.)

Here’s what Jobs said in his 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University:
I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

When I heard about his death, one of my thoughts was, Another person who knew Lloyd is gone. And since lots and lots of other people are talking about the impact Jobs and Apple made in their lives, I want to talk a little about Lloyd.

A calligraphy class — any class — with Lloyd encompassed far more than the subject material. Yes, he taught us about letter forms, their evolution and design, and how the demands of the eye and the inherent rhythms of the hand shape the letter forms. But more than that, Lloyd taught us to see and to listen beneath the obvious. Into his lectures, he wove Buddhist philosophy, William Blake, John Ruskin, contemporary progressive thought, and a deep and abiding reverence for the many expressions of the human spirit. He railed against narrow-mindedness, bigotry, hatred (and stood up to HUAC during the McCarthy years).

He loved to make writing organic, writing poems on brown paper and hanging them on trees; he called them “weathergrams.”

In this video, notice how the energy of Mozart’s music flows through the movement of the pen. Also, the fluidity of the strokes, which comes from a soft grasp of the pen and suppleness through the entire arm and body. The pen dances across the pages.

2016 in the life of a Gillian

Did anything happen in 2016 besides over a hundred short pieces of mine being published? Quite possibly. It was a busy year. Not the busiest, but busy enough. Most importantly, it was the year The Wizardry of Jewish Women was published. It was the first Australian fantasy novel by a Jewish Australian. History and Fiction also came out that year. It’s an academic volume. I interviewed historical fiction writers about how they use history in their writing and they wrote such informative and colourful answers that the wider public has been buying the book.

I was teaching at the Australian National University in the evenings, and for Belconnen Community Services during the day. I rounded up my income from many short articles. That was the year I officially lost count of how much of my writing was published by other people. It was also the year that I discovered that it was posible to be asked to do volunteer work for a casual day job and that the work would be greedier of my time than the actual job. This was at the Australian National University, where I was the “College Champion” teacher for the Centre for Continuing Education. The most time-consuming duty as to help other CCE staff get teaching accreditation. There was nothing in it for me – I had a graduate diploma and was accredited for university teaching in two different ways. I did it as a community service, just as I was involved in science fiction conventions and, earlier, in other things. This was the beginning of the end of my life at the ANU: this was their first step in demanding more work than I was ever paid for and of treating me without any dignity. 2016 was the year they ‘forgot’ the advertise my courses and then complained that I no longer had enough students to warrant offering them. I survived finally by writing articles, giving workshops at writers’ centres, and survived physically with the help of my local hospital. I also had a blog on my own website and, every March, asked fellow-writers if they’d be interested in celebrating Women’s History Month with a blog post. A publisher collapsed, and some of the work that was supposed to be out early the next year is only just now beginning to emerge. It was a complex year and an impossible one: 2017 was much better.

The great advantage of being a bit older is that I have years of curious life to draw on when I need them. My first publication was when I was fourteen. It was a letter to the editor of a local journal. The local journal was so surprised that I’d written to counter the council’s plan to place speed bumps or roundabouts in all the back streets to force people onto the main roads, and that the letter had been written in green ink, that this was also the first time I had an article about me in a newspaper. The green ink was pale and hard to read. I thought it was fine and trendy, but I pity the publishing editor.

I can’t go back as far as that with this series. For one thing, there was no internet. In fact, personal computers were only just looming. The 1970s were the time of the typewriter and the ballpoint pen. In my case, the pale green ballpoint pen. For another, only one or two stories appeared in print for the next few years then…. Nothing. There a story behind that ‘nothing’, I can take this little series back to last century, then. I can, but will I? Wait and see. The next year I’ll look at is 2005. The reason I chose 2005 is because I’ve been mourning losing most of my photographs from that year. I need to prove to myself that it was still a good year. My photographs are part of my research and part of my writing and whenever I need the ones from 2005 or one of those missing from 2006, I want to rail at the world. My reason for railing at the world in 2016 was nearly dying, and in 2005, photographs. That pretty much sums up the differences between those years.

Men vs. Bears

Unless you’re one of those sensible people who actually succeeds in not spending too much time online, you’ve probably seen something somewhere about the man versus bear debate.

I gather it began on TikTok (which I don’t watch on account of not being into video when words work just fine) but I’ve seen it on all the social media that I do read. Basically, women were asked whether, if they were hiking on a trail, they’d rather run into a bear or a man.

A vast majority of women said bear.

Some percentage of men were upset by this and proceeded to explain to women just how dangerous bears really are, on account of they assumed women couldn’t possibly understand that bears were dangerous.

Most of the posts I read about this were by women dunking on such men. Many shared a quote from someone – I only saw it in meme form so I don’t know who – to the effect of “If I were attacked by a bear, no one would ask what I’d been wearing.”

Which is to say that a lot of women used this bit to hammer home the fact that most women are conscious all the time that they’re at risk from men. It brought out the lists of things that most women do to protect themselves.

Note to the men out there: that list does not usually include “find a big strong man to protect me” because most women are well-aware of just how badly that can go.

While these days I usually go backpacking with my sweetheart, on account of the fact that we both like it and also that he is willing to do the part of setting up the tent that involves crawling around on the ground, an activity that my knees do not care for, I have in the past done such trips both by myself or with another woman.

I have not had a problematic run-in with either a bear or a man on those trips. I attribute the lack of bear problem to the fact that I used to hang my food in trees, as you are instructed to do when doing backcountry hiking in the Shenandoah National Park.

And one good way to avoid the man problem is to camp out of sight of the trail, which is also the accepted practice (or was back when I did it) in that park. If you can’t see people on the trail, they can’t see you.

Here in California, perhaps because of greater worry about fire, you are instructed to camp at designated campsites. There are shelters in Shenandoah National Park and people do stay in those as well. But I always used the camping off the trail system on the East Coast.

The closest I ever came to bears was one night when I was car camping in West Virginia and heard much snuffling outside my tent. I was sure it was bears. I was terrified. I finally summoned up the nerve to peek out of the tent and saw a large herd of deer. I’d apparently pitched a tent right in the middle of their salad bar. Continue reading “Men vs. Bears”

Kidstock and Mr. Romantic

Black and White photo of four screens and 500,000 people on the Great Lawn
Photo: Daniel Hulshizer/Associated Press

When you have small children you do things with them. At least we did. This is how, 29 years ago, we (including two kindergarteners) wound up in Central Park in New York City, on a June afternoon, waiting for the premiere of the Disney animated film Pocahontas.

The event was much heralded, and a month or so before the event there was a lottery for tickets. I never win lotteries, but somehow we won this one. We received four tickets, and invited S, one of my daughter’s besties. Came the day, we packed up food and drink and blankets and umbrellas (drizzle threatened for a brief while) and jackets and… all the myriad things you wind up carrying around when you have children. And about 2pm, along with 100,000 of our fellow parents-and-kids, we hied ourselves to Central Park to stake a claim to a bit of ground to call our own among the sea of parents and small children on the Great Lawn. “My God,” my husband said as we were orienting ourselves (four screens! concession stands! phalanxes of port-a-potties! youthful humanity as far as the treeline!) “It’s Kidstock!” 

The movie could not start until dark, but this whole thing was being produced (massively, lavishly) by Disney, and if there is one thing that Disney excels at, it is moving people while keeping them just entertained enough that they don’t riot. Especially children. Once we had found ourselves a small holding, one of us (probably my husband) took the girls to reconnoiter. There were various entertainments offered on each of the four stages: singers and appearances by Disney Channel stars and so forth. But mostly our girls chattered and played on our small patch of turf. People we knew passed by on their way to find their own patch of turf. And then the family of A, a boy in the girls’ kindergarten class, came by. We scootched over so they could establish a beachhead adjacent to ours: one of the best tactics of parenting is strength in numbers. It’s much easier to sit on a lawn among 100,000 people if there are four adults watching 3 kids, and you can take turns paying attention.

The day stretched on. Food was consumed. Strolls around to stretch legs and alleviate boredom were taken. A Pocahontas doll was scored for each of the girls. The question “but when will it start” was asked many times. As hard as it is to believe now, this was before smart phones, so instead of a sea of tiny heads bent over screens it was a sea of seething childhood, wiggling and giggling and wishing the sun would set already. And we (Danny and I) began to notice a fascinating bit of kid behavior going on between the three five-year-olds. First, a note about my daughter Jules. She was a dreamy, highly imaginative kid into make-believe and stories. One of the things she did not go in for was the crushes that some kindergarteners indulged in. Her friend S, on the other hand, was the kind of small girl who watched the relationships around her, hawklike, and knew who in the class “liked” whom. S was a pretty girl and used, frankly, to being treated that way; she was always watching the people around her, angling for position. Then there was A, or as his mother referred to him, Mr. Romantic, a sunny, affectionate kid. And Jules was… clueless.

At last the movie starts. The music swells. We settle in to watch. But I kept getting distracted by the little drama that is playing out on our blanket. See, A sort of snuggles up to Jules–whether he meant it romantically or just felt comfortable with her, I don’t know. S, seeing this, sidles over to A’s other side, presenting herself to be snuggled. A does not oblige. S is clearly frustrated by his lack of interest. Meanwhile, Jules is sitting there, eyes on the screen, riveted to the story. Through the 80 minutes of the movie A is watches the movie and occasionally looks at Jules. S watches the movie but is distracted by A’s apparent preference for Jules over herself, and gets antsy and fidgety. Jules is oblivious.

The worst part of the whole experience was, of course, getting packed up and home. The 100,000 people who had arrived over the course of the afternoon now all wanted to be gone and home at the same time. A and his parents said good night and vanished in their own direction. Danny and I packed up our belongings, put jackets on the girls and joined the clog of people heading toward the exits and the West Side. I don’t remember whether we delivered S to her parents or they picked her up from us. I do recall an initial frostiness emanating from S, which I think baffled Jules–suddenly her friend was mad at her, but why? Eventually S was worn down by Jules’s cheery rhapsodies about the movie (“what was your favorite part?”) and her frostiness dissipated. They stayed friends for several years, until time and changes in schools did what the attentions of Mr. Romantic, on a starry New York City night, could not.

Plantagenet food

You may have noticed that, last week, food entered the conversation about a book. When I tell everyone with much sobriety that I’m an ethnohistorian, my friends laugh. Ethnohistory includes food, as they know very well indeed. I don’t merely feed friends historical artefacts, I once had a food history blog. It’s simple cause and effect. No-one wanted to hear about the narratives that are my intellectual heartland, but everyone wanted to try the food mentioned in them.

I do both. I read and analyse and I cook and analyse and it’s an enormous amount of fun. Your post this week, then, is a piece I wrote for Bibliobuffet, a US online literary magazine, during my 3 year stay with them. I still miss the editors – they were wonderful to work with. I raise a theoretical glass of the best Ancient Greek diluted wine in their honour.

What I’m actually drinking tonight is vinegar water from 19th century children’s books. It should be raspberry vinegar, to be fair, but I wasn’t trying to replicate North American children’s books. I am trying to work out the difference between Polish and Australian vinegar. In books for adults, vinegar water is often touted as handy for some forms of indigestion and it is, which is a useful side effect of this particular historical food exploration.

Interpreting Foodways

Plantagenet England has one of the great cuisines. We don’t know a great deal about the food eaten everyday by ordinary people, and we have far more information for the fifteenth century than for the twelfth, but the best food on the table during that period and the most outstanding menu is some of the best food anywhere.

All but one of my favourite medieval dishes come from English manuscripts. These manuscripts are often regarded as French, because the language and the food style was French but there are differences between English and French food, to my mind. The English seem to have been cleverer with spices and to be far more aware of the look of the food: contrasting colours and clever presentation play a part in making the food delightful. Pomesmoille is apples and almond and can be made as a custard or as fresh and even crunchy. Crespez are deep-fried pancakes cookable almost instantly.

I begin my food history classes with this explanation, illustrated with recipes. I then spend session after session looking into the nature of the food: how it was cooked, where ingredients came from, what the manuscripts were like, how to interpret recipes and, most importantly, that my grand statements about the glory of the cuisine can be contradicted with accuracy and can still be precisely correct.

Despite the great interest so many of us have in this period of English history, it was before the time of printed cookbooks. We don’t have representative recipes, only occasional recipes. We don’t know what cooks made every day, only the food that a few people thought deserved writing down. The further back in time we go during the time of the Plantagenets, the less information we have and the more we rely on small amounts of data to interpret large aspects of food culture. We know a great deal, and at the same time, we don’t know nearly enough to make firm and definite conclusions.

Food history requires the mind of Sherlock Holmes alongside a vast raft of technical skills. And with all that, we have huge gaps in our knowledge. This doesn’t mean we don’t have knowledge. We have a great deal. We can argue for this position or that using the known cookbooks, using evidence from literature and from archival records, using the amazing amount of food-related archaeological material that has survived. The problem is bringing it together.

Ten years ago I thought I knew, and I told everyone who cared to listen what a glorious cuisine it was. I still suspect it might be, but… I want more evidence.

What happened was that I read Bridget Ann Henisch’s The Medieval Cook. Henish is one of the outstanding scholars in the field. She knows her stuff. And yet, in her book, she took material from this year or from that, evidence from this quarter and the other. Sometimes one part of her evidence was compatible with another and sometimes I stopped and wondered how on earth she could create an overview using just a few pieces of evidence that were centuries apart. None of her other writing does this, but The Medieval Cook is a popular overview and it’s very tempting to bring everything together and to show that we have an understanding of the period. That’s what books about the Middle Ages are for, to communicate an understanding. Audiences generally ask for firm and definite conclusions as part of this understanding.

I wrote the chapter on food in The Middle Ages Unlocked. I had much less material to draw on than Henisch, for The Middle Ages Unlocked covers a lot less time. I wrote very cautiously. “I don’t know this,” I found myself saying about this and about that, and did more research and discovered that no-one really knew this. At one stage I wrote a list of subjects that I thought I knew but had to doubt because, when I looked for the evidence, what I found was yet another general conclusion drawn from The Forme of Cury (possibly the most-used medieval cookbook for people wanting to reconstruct English food) or assumptions about home gardens in Sussex drawn from what was grown in Paris.

I took my list into class and I asked students, “How much do you know about the food we eat, here, in Canberra, in the twenty-first century?” The answers were enlightening. They helped me understand how I and so many other people can say “We know this cuisine” about Plantagenet cooking when, really, we only know some things about it.

Some students used their home cooking as the absolute arbiter of normal food for Canberra. Others used Women’s Weekly cookbooks. Occasionally, a student would collect data from other students and say “This composite, that’s how we need to see Canberra’s food.” These data-oriented students were the ones who paid attention to my original discussion about the method of studying food history: it’s data based. And our database is insufficient.

Most scholars realise this most of the time and try to talk about what we can know, and to limit claims. Henisch is one of the good scholars and this is how she normally works. The shape and content of The Medieval Cook, however, is the shape and story of the Middle Ages for a more popular audience. It’s a different type of story about the Middle Ages. Far easier to read. Far more entertaining. Far easier to find problems with.

We have a set of archetypal views of the Middle Ages. Popular books will often take one or another of them, because they’re far easier to write about than a more sophisticated (read ‘crazy-complicated’) analysis. Those archetypal views, in food terms, are like the Canberra students who think that every Canberra family eats like their own, or that Women’s Weekly cookbooks represent Canberra cooking. There is truth in them, for some people eat like that student’s family and a lot of people learn cooking from the Women’s Weekly cookbooks. There’s knowledge in this approach. Sometimes there’s very good knowledge in this approach. Understanding is harder.

What I’ve done is to keep all my favourite recipes. I’ll make pomesmoille whenever my favourite apples are in season, and I’ll give all my students my favourite joke about crespez being medieval junk food but… I teach all about those data sources and how to interpret them and send students to them whenever I can. I encourage them to find more data sources (archaeological reports and archival material have so much material in them!) and to help build up a more realistic picture of complex foodways over a long period of time. Students who want easy answers hate me for this. There are fewer soundbites. It’s much more exciting, however, for it’s something that anyone can do: build up a personal and sophisticated understanding of foodways. Learn to see the Middle Ages as continually surprising, continually exciting.

The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?

I do not usually pay attention to the Met Gala, which is happening next Monday. In fact, I think the first time I was even aware of its existence was several years back, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went wearing a white dress that had the words “Tax the Rich” on it in bold red letters.

But I happened to see a NY Times piece about this year’s event that explained that the theme is “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” and the dress code is based on J. G. Ballard’s story “The Garden of Time.”

As The Times describes it, the story is:

about an aristocratic couple living in a walled estate with a magical garden while an encroaching mob threatens to end their peaceful existence. To keep the crowd at bay, the husband tries to turn back time by breaking off flower after flower, until there are no more blooms left. The mob arrives and ransacks the estate, and the two aristocrats turn to stone.

The purpose of the Gala is to raise money for the fashion wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which apparently has to pay for itself. This does not seem to be a problem: last year’s Gala raised $22 million.

It is a party where the rich and famous pay lots of money to hob and nob and many people wear extravagant costumes. Apparently the “sleeping beauties” of the theme are items from the museum’s collection that are too fragile to be displayed even on mannequins.

But it was the reference to and description of the Ballard story that really caught my eye, caught it so much that I went looking for it and fortunately my library had The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. “The Garden of Time” was first published in 1962 and was, I gather, Mr. Ballard’s first appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I have now read it twice and I still find in unbelievable that this story is inspiring the dress code for a gathering of the rich and glamorous celebrities.

I am also amazed that The Times managed to report on this without any comment beyond “Just what comes to mind when you think “fashion,” right?”

I mean, they’re using a story in which rich and elegant people are trying to stave off the masses as dress inspiration for a gala that costs $75,000 a person in a time of extreme wealth inequality. You’d expect the reporter to have noticed that. Continue reading “The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?”