Living in small spaces during big times

Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…

I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.

I break iso once every six weeks, on average.

Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.

I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.

I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.

That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.

I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.

Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.

I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.

My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.

I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)

I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.

My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.

Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon!

I came back from walking the dogs and saw a wonderful triad of the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn—in a clear sky (by Boston standards), and right above my driveway. If I’m ever going to bring that beautiful Celestron telescope down from the dining room, I thought, this should be the time. So I limbered up with some back exercises—or should have—and lugged it downstairs. What a beautiful view! The Moon was glorious, Jupiter was spectacular, and Saturn was elusive. Finally I found it, though, with its rings tilted at a rakish angle. I texted my family, I phoned them: Get down here!

This is them, taking their turns at the scope.

And here is the worst astronomical picture ever: Jupiter and the Galilean moons, imaged with an Android phone held shakily to the eyepiece. I thought all I’d gotten was a blur. But when I checked later, I was pleased to see a recognizable picture of the planet! (The big blue smudge is an artifact. Either that, or it’s Neptune, photobombing my shot.)

In a world filled with wildfires, hurricanes, pandemic, and walking calamities in high public office, sometimes you just need a little piece of the cosmos to calm you down.


Just Let Me Have a Nap, then I Can Conquer the World. Or at Least Potty Training.

2020 is an ongoing trash fire.  That’s just a fact.  It’s easy to get bogged down in it, to decide there’s no damn use, to just…sink under the weight of it all. Like most people, I’m barely getting through the day. Taking on more responsibility seemed crazy.

But I’d been thinking for a while about getting a dog. And when the older of my two cats passed this spring, and I moved into my own place, it seemed like maybe now was the time?

So I started looking at shelters, putting in applications for dogs who matched what I wanted: a young adult, mid-sized and solidly built, who was cat-friendly.   Each time, I lost out because there is a scarcity of cat-friendly pups available after the great Lockdown Pup Adoption Frenzy.  So, meh, I figured it would take a while.

Then one of the shelters I’d applied to reached out and asked me if I’d be interested in fostering, since they knew I did that for Homeward Pet.  And I said, sure, why not?  And they said, “we have 8-week-old puppies.”  And I said, “sure, why not?”  Because I’m an idiot like that.

“They’re 8-week-old Red Heelers,” they said.  And I said, “oh hell.”  Because that kind of high-energy, high-attention critter was very much not what I was looking for.

And then I saw the picture of “Minnie” and I may have lost a bit of my heart to her.  So I agreed, and the night before my birthday, a transport of twenty-four (yes, 24) pups, including Minnie and her litter mates, arrived, and were parceled out to the waiting fosters.

Dear Reader, I may have known what I was agreeing to, but I had no idea what I was getting into.

Minnie (whom I immediately dubbed the more accurate “Maxi”) is a delightful, adorable, slightly clumsy, and surprisingly thoughtful creature, and I already adore her.  But she. Has. To. Pee. Every. Three. Hours. 

Which isn’t a problem during the daytime. Having enforced breaks to get up and stretch my legs has been nice, actually.  But at night?  At night it’s a different story.

And no, I can’t let her pee in her crate.  Or, I could, but it’s a bad idea, for many reasons, and I’m not going to do that.  So I’m setting my alarm, and getting up at midnight, and again at 3am, and again at 6am….

It’s only been three days, and I’m beyond exhausted.  I’ve got a book I need to revise, and a couple of short stories to write, and a day gig, and a regime to protest.  And a cat who is being really good about all this but also wants his Human Time. 

There are times I just want to sink.

But.  In the midst of the trash fire that is 2020, there’s something kind of amazing about having this fresh, fragile, trusting life in your hands.  About knowing that you can do it right, and make sure they get a solid start to life, to grow up confident, unafraid, and loving.  Healthy, and happy.

And to know that whatever you do is returned to you, immediately.  Because when I stagger to the crate at 3am, I’m greeted by a warm, wriggly bundle of sheer joy, who wants only to lick my face – and pee, yeah, but first, there needs to be face licking.

And between kitten snuggles and puppy kisses, I’m able to think not just about surviving, but thriving.

If she’d just stop licking my face so I can work.

Running Water

Everyone in California is dealing with wildfires right now (along with the pre-existing catastrophes of this stellar year and yes that was sarcastic, 2020 you train wreck) so of course I’m thinking about floods. (I’m thinking about floods, actually, because my friend Kate in Ireland recounted, elsewhere, the epic tale of the back yard drain clogging up and thereby soaking the floor in her mother’s apartment, and…). Kate’s house is built into a hillside, and because gravity works, water runs downhill into the yard and… squish. Wet rug, to say the least.

I’m familiar–very familiar–with this situation. I was raised, at least in part, in a Barn–a sort of extended weekend project of my highly creative father’s, that started out as a working double barn and wound up as a 60s-inflected House Beautiful. I have written elsewhere about many of the exploits at the Barn (always capitalized in the specific) but not the water problem. The Barn, like my friend Kate’s house, was built into a mountain, and in spring, when the snow had melted, the cowbarn–what normal people would call the basement–would flood. Sometimes significantly. Continue reading “Running Water”

The special joy of Spring in Australia

Spring is almost here. I could wax about flowers (and hayfever), about politics (and political fatigue) about having to wear my knee rug as a toga for late night meetings because my heater doesn’t do the job. Or I could talk about magpies.

Australian magpies are scary-bright. If you feed them, they will take care of you. They will watch over you and they will attack intruders in spring. If you don’t, one in ten (or may one in a hundred, maybe fewer) will simply attack. An ornithologist told me once that it’s probably a male testosterone thing. Whether it is that or not, they’re always protecting their turf.

Attacks are not random. People are attacked strategically. If your face is a known face (if you provide minced meat to the magpie every day of your shred life), you’re safe. If you’re a cyclist, you’re not so safe. If you’re in a pram, you’re not so safe.

By ‘not so safe’, eyes have been taken out, on occasion, and there can be contusions and… you don’t leave a baby alone in the park in magpie season and have a conversation 30 metres away unless you’re certain there is no swooping.

That’s only for a few weeks a year, and it’s only one out of a great number of birds, so any American who puts magpie attacks on the list of reasons to avoid Australia is helping us avoid people who don’t understand the real dangers to tourists in Australia. Dehydration, for example, is more likely than being successfully attacked by a magpie. If you’re after birds that defeated an army, you should look up “Emu War”, not “attack magpie”.

Why have I meandered to “Australia as a dangerous place?” I wanted to talked about the intelligence of magpies, not about Australia’s secret plot to scare away US tourists.

This year we have two new signs of magpie intelligence. First, they were traumatised by the fire and there are more swoops this year and the swoops started earlier. Magpies get PTSD.

Second, if you’re wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter if you’ve fed a magpie for twenty years, you’re likely to be swooped. This made me think about the one year in my life I’ve been swooped: I’d changed my hair style and my glasses. Magpies employ facial recognition.

Also, their song is more complex than most birds, and it changes in different ways to different circumstances, but that’s not new. It is, however, extraordinarily beautiful. Magpies are one of the great song birds. Like opera singers with rapiers, really.

‘Bird-brain’ means something else entirely with Australian magpies to any other bird I know.

Conventional Behavior

Shirley ChisholmThe first vote I ever cast in a presidential election was in 1972 for Shirley Chisholm.

That wasn’t in the general election in November (where I voted for George McGovern as any reasonable person should have done). It was at my precinct caucus in May, back when Texas (and most states) chose political candidates using caucus and convention systems rather than primaries.

At the caucus, you picked the candidate you supported, and then the precinct workers tallied the votes to see which candidates had enough support to go to the next round. Alas, I was the only person who signed in for Chisholm, and one vote wasn’t enough for the next round.

I could have gone home, but instead I switched to McGovern, and ended up going to the county convention as a McGovern delegate. Still, the first time anyone ever officially asked me who I wanted for president, I said Shirley Chisholm. I remain proud of that. Continue reading “Conventional Behavior”

Speckled in Paste

No-knead sourdough bread.

My high school boyfriend and I are, these days, buds on Facebook, and therefore he is privy to my posts about baking and cooking. After I had extolled the wonders of what I made for dinner one night (chicken pot pie with sourdough pie crust), he asked “What’s with all the Sourdough?”

Being at times intractably didactic, I explained to him that when the lockdown started and a lot of people started baking at home, yeast was, initially, hard to find. As in unicorn-difficult. So many people started sourdough cultures, which when properly grown will produce all the leavening a loaf of bread could want–plus a slight tangy flavor that many people find pleasing.

It was only after I had said all this that I realized that he might have been asking why I kept talking about sourdough, so I had to explain that the way you keep your starter alive is by periodically giving the yeast in the starter more food: water and flour. To do this you measure out some starter, add an equivalent amount of water and flour, mix and let ripen. The starter you didn’t use? It is referred to as discard, and you throw it out (so that you do not wind up with enough unfed discard that it threatens to take over your home and devour the cat) or find alternate uses for it. At the moment I have a quart of discard in my fridge (and my regular starter ripening on the counter before it goes into hibernation in the fridge as well).

So far, in seeking ways to use up my discard, I have made sourdough pasta, sourdough pie crust, sourdough peach cobbler, sourdough pretzels, sourdough crackers, and sourdough crumpets. Continue reading “Speckled in Paste”

I can’t stop wondering if other peoples’ lives are this confusing

I was trying to explain to a friend today, that my life is so rollercoaster that I couldn’t catch him up on the last three weeks. I’d just caught him up on maybe a third of it, with much hand gesturing and discussion. He didn’t think my life was playing rollercoaster games with me. It’s normal, he said.

If it’s normal, I worry about the world. One day recently, eight nasty little things happened to me before breakfast and spellcheck offered me ‘tetchy’ instead of an entirely different word. I wanted to accept ‘tetchy’ then. That same day, I received one of those phone calls that ends with, “Don’t tell anyone. This is under embargo.” The embargo  is over and I can tell you: I’ve been given a government grant to write. And I’d just told the world I was tetchy. I had eight reasons for being tetchy and now I have one reason for having a sigh of relief. Income is a magic thing.

The next bit of rollercoaster was entirely exhaustion with being inside. The place I live in may be short on COVID, but I am vulnerable and my various doctors tell me I will be in iso for a long time to come. Sometimes I become rebellious. This time I found an historical drama (the ‘an’ is to remind you of my accent) that is 50 one hour episodes long and that depicts a part of the Middle Ages I’m little-acquainted with. Six Flying Dragons and the Korean fourteenth century. I can still pick some holes in it and there is so much to learn about how Korea likes to tell its own stories and so it’s relaxing.

K-drama was performing its magic and I was thinking, “I, too, can have an even keel of a life.” Unless my friend is wrong and other people have placid days from time to time. For it seems I can’t. The minute I thought I could I had to give up seven phials of blood to medical diagnosis. I went into a shop on the way home. The shop with no-one else except one salesperson, and we stayed clear of each other, so I can tell my doctor next week “I didn’t betray you, truly – I wore a mask and didn’t come within 2 metres of anyone.

My unexpected trip outside the flat taught me that Australia is getting very few shipments from SE Asia. I have lots of ginger tea and not a scrap of the spices I went in for.

I also have moon cakes. Normally the moon cakes come from Hong Kong or from Singapore. These might have been from Hong Kong, but they are labelled ‘China’ and are standard white lotus ones with much eggyolk. These will be my special treat for the next month, then the tin ends up storing food in my pantry. Moon cake tins stack and they have good seals, and each year I get just one. I was thinking that flour would be good to store  in this one, but it’s too pretty.

I couldn’t get my Javanese coffee. Kopi Jawa is a particular roast and a particular brand from Indonesia. I was taught to make it in a way that works like instant coffee but with a much better flavour, and it’s great for when I’m lazy, or tired or sick or all three. There was a void on the shelf where it belonged.

It’s odd to find what’s around and what isn’t. It’s stranger walking through a shop with shelves that look as if they belong to the seventies than it is to shop online.

I ought to explain the seventies thing. Australia in the seventies had strikes. We imported a lot of things – we still do – and the strikes meant unpredictably empty shelves. This means I have techniques for dealing when my favourite Japanese spice mix is missing, but I’d rather have the spices.

When I came home I found the best and nicest email in my in-box.

I’m on panels at NASFiC. So many conference organisers are learning (in a great hurry) how to create magic online events. This one is free (though donations help) and it starts on Friday and half of it is in the middle of my night. I would normally attend the Australian equivalent, but the Australian equivalent is nothing like NASFiC and I’m so much looking forward to it.

I’m not talking about nine-tenths of what happens. This erratic movement from amazing to mundane to terrible to brilliant is my everyday.

The funny side is iso in a flat. I see people through Zoom or other programs, and I speak a lot on the phone, and I shout at my television when the writing is bad, but otherwise, I am alone. So much alone. And so busy and so rollercoastery and running and hopping to keep up. Some days I suspect plants are fictional. Other days I’m pretty certain that the outside world is a figment of my imagination.

I don’t always have enough time for my imagination. The day NASFiC ends, for instance, I have to edit a book I wrote with another government grant early this year. The grants are not very big but, to be honest, when it’s just me and my computer and my living room and the kitchen (far too close, because I like cooking and cooking likes my waist) the grants don’t have to be big.

My rollercoaster has some very deep dips in it, which you (honestly, trust me on this) don’t need to know about. The nuggets of gold and nodules of gem take me to the heights, and it’s much easier to deal with bad things when one has occasional views of a bigger world and when there are whole months at a time when bills can be paid. This year, the lows are giant hollows cut into a mountain and when I’m there I feel as if there is no outside world and no hope. The highs, however, are exceptional.

I still want to know if my friend is right about everyone having eight nasty things to handle before breakfast and one gloriously brilliant thing after breakfast and if the transformation from tetch to thinking there will be a future is very sudden and possibly uncomfortable. I’d like to know that. Mind you, I’d also like to know ten more languages and have forty hours extra each day and good eyes so that I can read ALL the wonderful stories in them. I’d like lots of things. Not this week yet. This week is busy.

Exams and Cheating

At the beginning of R.F. Kuang’s novel The Poppy War (which I just started, so this isn’t a review), the main character Rin must strip naked and be patted down before taking an exam. She can’t even wear her own clothes into the exam room.

I immediately harkened back to reports that the Texas Bar and those of several other states were prohibiting those taking the bar exam from bringing their own tampons or pads with them to the exam. Since those reports came out, the Texas Bar has relented to the extent that it will allow women to bring their own products in a clear plastic bag (a la the ones you use for your liquids at the airport).

In both cases, the authorities are obsessed with preventing the test takers from cheating. I don’t know if there is a good argument for the exam in the world of Kuang’s novel, though given the amount of ugliness and corruption hinted at so far, I suspect the test is mostly a tool for keeping out the riff-raff, and might not be the best way to determine who should receive higher education.

But I have taken a bar exam – the Texas one, in fact – and can tell you that it is essentially a hazing ritual, a tool to make you put in a lot of wasted hours studying for the test, which is not the same as studying how the law works, so that you can show you are willing to do a lot of meaningless work to put “Attorney at Law” after your name.

When I read about the tampon rule, my first reaction, even before reacting to the misogyny and silliness, was “they’re giving an in-person bar exam during the pandemic? In Texas, where the pandemic is pretty much out of control right now?” Continue reading “Exams and Cheating”

Talking About Audiobooks on Cat Rambo’s Blog

Cat Rambo is former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and an author of considerable note. Instead of writing on my own blog today, I wrote on hers—a fairly detailed piece on audiobooks and how I went about it with my books. I called it “How I Ventured into Audiobooks and Lost My Shirt—Or Maybe Found It.” If audiobooks interest you, and especially if you’re a writer wondering how that whole thing works, why not step over there and take a look. Here’s a teaser:

Audiobooks are the current gold rush in publishing—or so they say, and you know “they” always know what they’re talking about. If you don’t get on the audiobook wagon, you are sure to lose out.

That might or might not be true. But one thing that is true, without a doubt, is that listening to a book narrated aloud is an experience unlike that of silently reading text. An audiobook can make or break a book for the listener. In the hands of a poor narrator, any book can be crushed. But in the hands of a skilled narrator, even humdrum text can take flight, and sparkling text can soar.… [continue reading]