Not a Fairy Story

I’m researching fairy tale retellings right now, so I want to start this post with Once Upon a Time. The story has a fairy tale element to it. It starts with a dream and ends with a happy surprise. It is, however, no fairy tale. Let me start it with the right words anyhow, because I can.

Once Upon a Time I had a dream. It was only a little dream. I woke up with an image from it so firmly imprinted into my vision memory, that, even before I had coffee, I went to my computer. I looked to see if I could find a picture of Io, because my dream was looking up at Io through an old telescope and seeing it as if it were our moon.

I found the picture almost immediately. Io looked the way my mind had dreamed it. I don’t remember if I took time for coffee, or if I wrote the story immediately, but by the end of the day I had a first draft of a story set in a far-distant planet, where a society re-enacted the eighteenth century.

I was chatting with a friend and told her about it. She read my draft. Then she told me her dream, which was to run a magazine. I let her have my story to use to build that magazine. She set up the organisation and edited everything and I and a couple of other friends built a world writers and artists could play in. That world was New Ceres. My story was its backbone and its heart, but it was never published. Life got in the way.

I took my version of New Ceres because I had new dreams about what could happen on that planet. Alisa took hers and she published a lovely anthology. She then started a publishing house and that publishing house has put out amazing book after amazing book. I watch to see where her dreams taker her next, because they’re always to fascinating places.

My dreams took a while to realise. First, I wrote them into a novel. An editor from a well-known science fiction press asked if I could send it to him. Whenever I asked about how he was going with it, I was told that it would be read the next week, that it was a priority, that I should not worry. Eight years later I took my manuscript back, and resolved to try elsewhere.

The novel was accepted somewhere else almost immediately, but that publisher imploded. Another publisher took it on. They asked one of my favourite artists to do the cover and he built (literally, built) a scene from the novel, and photographed it. A street from New Ceres lives in the Blue Mountains.

My novel was released straight into the first COVID inversion, where no-one looked for new novels by small press on the other side of the world. It was going to be celebrated at WorldCon in New Zealand. New Zealand is so close and so friendly and… the pandemic changed that, too. At least, I thought, it was finally published. I could close that chapter on those dreams and move on. Its final name was Poison and Light. Here, have a link to it. Admire the cover.

Tonight I had news about the novel I thought no-one could read because all the publicity and distribution were hit so hard by the pandemic that it simply wasn’t very visible. It’s been shortlisted for an award.

In that short-list are novels by wonderful writers whose work was issued by that first publisher. The editors won’t remember the eight years I had to wait, nor the emails that went unanswered in the last year, when I tried to find out what was happening. I remember. And now, finally, I know that the initial request to see the novel was serious. That it was an unlucky novel, but not one that was poorly written. And that readers are finding it, despite its travails.

I shall dream again tonight of that acned moon. And, finally, I will move on.

A COVID loss: anger, grief, and healing

The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging for many months now, marked from the onset by lies about the disease, its origins, its treatment, and its prevention. No aspect of the pandemic has been free from controversy and misinformation. In the middle of flame wars and whack-a-mole efforts to squelch anti-vaccine, anti-mask internet sites lies the confusion and grief of those who have lost loved ones to this disease (over 700,000 in the US and 4,800,000 worldwide).

 

Like many others who believe in science, I was first puzzled and then appalled by the cloud of outright falsehoods that grew up around vaccination. Refusing the vaccines based on illogical and unfounded internet rumors struck me as downright suicidal. Equally troubling were the friends who bought into those lies.

One was a long-time, very dear friend who had supported me through dark times and whom I had supported in turn. Early in 2020, L told me that she didn’t trust the mRNA vaccines and besides, she thought she’d had a mild case of COVID-19, although she was never tested. But she was diligently wearing a mask at work, and it was clear that further discussion would only be confrontational, so I backed off. For the next year, all appeared to be going well. Then she moved to another part of the country, one with low vaccination and mask-wearing rates. I heard from her while she was waiting at an urgent care center for a persistent cough. Her COVID-19 test was positive. A few days later, she was admitted to the ICU. We talked and texted frequently as her condition deteriorated. After a week and a half, she was placed on a ventilator. She died two weeks later. Her last text to me was, “I love you.”

During her hospitalization, I felt not only growing concern for her, but anger. Anger at so many things. After her diagnosis, I wanted to scream at her, “How could you fall for that conspiracy nonsense?” Then my fury spread to everyone who spread those lies, manipulated statistics, and otherwise terrified people into refusing the one thing proven to save their lives. Anger at the last administration and the former president, who failed to take action at the onset of the pandemic. Anger at the officials in her state for their lax measures and cavalier attitudes to the virus. Anger at everyone who touted ineffective remedies in order to make a profit. And most of all, guilt that I hadn’t pressed the vaccine issue harder and been persuasive enough to save my friend’s life.

Grief mixed with anger and guilt isn’t logical. Nor is it simple.

While my friend was still alive, I realized how unhelpful it would be to be angry with her during her illness. The time to discuss vaccines was after the crisis, not when she was fighting to breathe. Armed with these thoughts, I did my best to work through this particular piece of anger or at least put a dent in it. I also talked myself through my part in what happened and acknowledge that there was nothing I could have done. The choices were hers, as were the consequences. But I believe in harm reduction. The price of making stupid decisions should not be death, although with COVID-19 it all too often is. I hoped that eventually my friend would have come around to getting vaccinated, but she ran out of time. Now I’m just sad.

My opinion of the anti-vaxxers hasn’t budged. I’m angrier and less patient with them than I was before. I still want to blast them with their responsibility for the death of my friend and so many others. I don’t go all-out on this, however. I have more important emotional work to do, mourning the loss of my friend. Continue reading “A COVID loss: anger, grief, and healing”

Two Things

It’s been a difficult fortnight. Every time this happens all I want to do is cry in a corner. Alas, for me, I’m not really a crying in corner kind of person. I’m a “What can I do?” person, mostly. (If I’m not, you know there is something really, really, REALLY wrong.) This means I’ve done two things this fortnight that are over and above my usual. One is to do with writers and the other is to do with a book.

The book is probably the best thing I will ever work on. I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from the publisher in years. We sorted out what had happened and all is well in terms of communications, but I looked at the sales and realised that the word never got out about this book when it was published in the US. It sold nicely in Australia, then was taken up by a US press then fell into a black hole. This happens to a surprising number of books. This one volume, however, is special and needs to emerge from its black hole.

So what is this mysterious book? It’s an anthology called Baggage, and I was the editor.  Let me give you a link.  

I work (a lot, and for many years) on the subject of culture. I’m not only an ethnohistorian, I’m passionate about how we depict and share culture. When I told some of Australia’s best science fiction, fantasy and horror writers that I was interested in them writing me stories that explained cultural baggage… this book was the result. In a perfect world, I’d also edit one for, say, US writers, and French writers and Polish writers and more and we’d all have a marvellous ongoing conversation through short story about how fiction can explain cultural baggage. That was my dream. My reality, now, is that I’d be happy if these wonderful stories in this very Australian volume were read. I want everyone to enjoy everything from the sentient glacier to the way societies can fall apart and the way we can carry our history with us everywhere.

The second thing is that Australian science fiction circles are ready to deal with the ongoing affects of people being cut off from each other, and I’m a part of how we’re handling it. Prior to this some of us meet once a month, but it’s private. Now the Australian Science Fiction Foundation is setting up a room online where writers can meet up once a week, just to chat. Most of the writers interested so far are in rural and regional Australia, which may make this a longterm proposition. All our other ideas (“our” being the Australian Science Fiction Foundation, of course) will appear in due course, but our chat starts this Thursday.

This is another type of dream, I think. I want people to have more tools for talking about culture and about heritage and place in society, and the best short story writers give us those tools. I want people to be less isolated, full stop. The pandemic has given us all sorts of capacities we didn’t have earlier that help along these lines. In my perfect world having a bad fortnight, or living far from people, or having physical limitations due to disabilities should be an excuse for pulling together, not falling apart.

I’m still dealing with the effects of my bad fortnight, but at least I’m up to the pulling together stage.

September 11

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks here in the United States. Many people will give pious speeches and talk about “never again.” Perhaps there will be a reading of the names of the 3,000 people who died in the attacks.

I wonder if anyone will talk about how little we learned from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I was profoundly affected by those attacks. I lived in Washington, DC, at the time. My sister and her family lived (and live) three blocks from where the World Trade Center used to be.

I spent a couple of hours trying to get in touch with my sister that morning before it finally dawned on me to call my parents in Texas. My sister and her family were fine and so was their building, though they weren’t allowed to go home for a month. And I explained to my parents that the Pentagon was actually in Virginia so that I was not at risk.

Though I worked about six blocks from the White House. I’ve always thought the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House.

Anyway, I walked home that day, all six miles, because I assumed that anyone attacking Washington, DC, would take advantage of the chaos in traffic and public transit to do even more damage. And then I stared at the TV for the next couple of days.

Like many people, I wanted to do something useful after the attacks. There was a lot of talk of organizing neighborhood groups that could help people in the event of emergencies. Those emergencies would include disasters and pandemics. (Cell phone use was not widespread in 2001.) Continue reading “September 11”

Goodness, Sweetness and just a touch of ratbaggery

Firstly, let me wish you all a happy and healthy and good and sweet New Year.

Rosh Hashanah starts very, very soon in Australia (I’ve put a delay on publication, so that it’s on Monday for most of you, but it’s already Monday afternoon here) and I’m furiously trying to get everything done in time. Lockdown, oddly, makes everything harder. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said “But of course it makes things easier.” I have apple and I have honey and I have mooncake in lieu of honeycake. I’m meeting my mother and her BFF and one of my BFFs online in a bare few minutes. My friend is a cantor and we’re going to have some music.

What makes this Rosh Hashanah special is my friends. One friend found me an apple. Another found me some honey. A third went to considerable length to get me mooncake. Even though I’ll be alone… I won’t be alone.

The downside is the number of people who want things from me today and tomorrow (sorry, but I can’t do these things) or, worse, the half-dozen different people who, just this week, have sent me invitations or reminders for events on my Day of Atonement.

To be honest, I’m not that observant. The more difficult people become around me because I’m Jewish, however, the more I stick to my special days. Holding gorgeous science fiction events (three of them! three different organisations!) on my holiest of holy days will make me stick to what I was taught as a child and even to fast and to pray. This has been the case ever since primary school. So many people have wanted me to be less Jewish or even not Jewish at all, and every time they express this or encourage me to be Christian or to eat pork or simply to work after sunset on days like today… I discover my Judaism all over again.

I do wonder what my religious views would be if I didn’t encounter antisemitism so often, or the limited toleration that I’m facing now. That limited toleration means that I make my mother happy, by doing the right things. This is not a bad outcome.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe, celebrate or don’t celebrate, please have a wonderfully good and sweet year. For anyone who, like me, will be fasting (at least as much as the doctor permits) then well over the fast. And for all of us, may we get through this pandemic well and safely and emotionally intact.

Special Office Organising Tools and Their Joy #29.237

It’s odd that the amount of excitement in life can bear almost no relationship at all to how much space one has. What’s even odder is that when life is so full of things to do that it’s bursting at the seams, when I need at least three more hours in any given day that the day starts to reduce to… at the moment… pink sticky notes. My desk is covered in these things. Each one I scrunch up and add to the recycling box is an achievement.

These pink sticky notes are not about achievement. I can edit a novel, or write a conference paper, or prepare a bibliography and not one of these pieces of work made it into pink sticky notes. In fact, I’ve done all three of things, in multiples, over the last few days and not a single pink sticky note was produced.

The pink sticky notes are for the little things that have to be done but can’t take priority over something as large as an approach to a 5,000 word essay. I’ve just scrunched up one that reminded me I had to confirm I’d be at a conference in a couple of weeks. I’ve already written most of the paper for it, but I have two sentences to add, and have a note for those two sentences. I’m about to scrunch up another note, that reminded me to use a consistent plural for an invented word. Yet another tells me that a shop delivers to my suburb once a week. I have no idea what I needed from that shop, or even if it was something I had to check for an entirely different reason. Let me find out and get back to you.

I hope you enjoyed your break. It’s the Canberra branch of a Singapore food outlet and I am missing my Singapore friends, so I was dreaming of getting something delivered on the once-a-week they are doing lockdown deliveries to my part of Canberra. It’s a dream, but a nice one. They have three of my favourite dishes (beef rendang, Hainanese chicken, fried chicken) and I want to know how good they are and I want to have a set and think of friends I had expected to see last year or this. I now know they exist and one day I’ll taste their food.

Now that I know why I wrote a note, I can throw it out. I’ve thrown out a handful of pink sticky notes and the only ones left are actions I have to take. I need to write an article, and some fiction. I have a rather special note that explains the pronunciation of a name in a world friends and I have been working on, and another for my coming New Year’s eve (5 pm, it says, which is a reminder that I’ll be meeting an old friend online at that time and on that day).

I like sticky notes. They look like litter, but are gems. I snuck them into a short story once, to pay tribute to the important role they play on days when I don’t want to use lists.

Basically, they’re a trick I play on myself when I’m not as sorted as I should be. They help me keep up with the small things in life. Not just books I want to read or restaurants I’m curious about. In fact, mostly not these at all. The first ones to be sorted when I am in that mode are the ones that have deadlines. Today I had one that said “Write to R.” That was about a novel, and I had to finish all the work to make the novel ready to write about before I could write that email then scrunch up the note.

Someone asked me the other day how I worked through stress. Sticky notes is one of my favourite methods. When I’m unstressed I can remember everything, or write lists. When the world becomes too much (as it has been for over two years) I deal with some of the stress by littering my desk then symbolically clearing it by recycling everything that’s done. It’s not at all efficient, but it’s very satisfying, especially on a bad day.

When I was young, I thought I’d grow up into handling big things with aplomb. That aplomb was going to make my whole life triumphant and full of vigour. I thought stress was a thing that teenagers suffered and that I would grow out of it. Neither of these things happened. Instead, I developed a raft of tricks for handling my life when it becomes tough. Today was a day when I had to do All the Things, but it was also a day when my body announced its discomfort with me being in it. I had to deal with pain and deadlines. I’ve not done all the things I wanted to finish, but I’ve done a very solid day’s work and I don’t have any outstanding sticky notes. There’s no triumph and hardly any vigour, but I am ending the day with the sense that I haven’t wasted it.

If I can do the same amount tomorrow, then I may even catch up with all the things I need to do before back to back meetings tomorrow night. I shall dream of such an outcome. For the day ended hours ago, and I’m off to sleep.

I suspect I might dream of pink sticky notes tonight. Just suspect, mind.

Angry These Days

The latest IPCC report makes it clear that climate change is happening now and that we need major, concerted, international efforts to slow it down and deal with the ongoing crises it will cause.

After 18 months of a worldwide pandemic, it’s pretty obvious that major, concerted, international efforts will only happen in a fantasy world. And not in a fantasy novel, since I’m sure no editor would accept a novel that posited major, concerted, international efforts to do anything.

“Too implausible,” they would say. And they would be right.

I haven’t thought about the report very much. I knew what it would say when I heard it was coming out. Good news about important things is in short supply.

In truth, I’ve been depressed lately. Anxious, too, though not as anxious as I was last year. And angry. Very, very, very angry.

This might seem to call for therapy. But I’m depressed, anxious, and angry because of the pandemic, the atrocious US public health response, right-wing extremism, and climate change.

A therapist can’t fix any of that. All a therapist can do is help me put up with this nonsense.

And I don’t want to put up with it. Continue reading “Angry These Days”

Travelling as the Green Children Do

I’m mostly typing with my left hand still. One day my right hand will heal, just as, in Disney’s universe, one day a prince will come. In the meantime, something else is on the way. Let me give you a link: https://madnessheart.press/product/the-green-children-help-out/?v=6cc98ba2045f

It’s my new novel.

Some years ago I started work on an alternate universe where the English Jewish population is significantly larger than the one we know, where there are many types of magic and much administration to keep it polite and then I thought, “I want a superhero novel set in that universe.” More than that, I wanted the superheroes to come from our universe. I set up a pocket universe to bridge the two and wondered what it would be like if a twelve year old Australian girl entered by mistake and never left. I wrote a novella to test the idea and then I went to France in 2018, to research it.

I researched many other things at the same time, for I’m still and always an historian and I had many questions I needed answers for. My burning one (not for the novel) was what happens one hundred years after land is destroyed by war. How do people find culture, rebuild, talk about the past? I’ll write about my discoveries one day.

What I wrote into my novel was modern Amiens, and a town in my little pocket universe. The town’s architecture came from what I learned about post-war building and the dances and culture I gave the good people of Tsarfat began there but included more recent French culture, both the good and the bad.

While I wrote the novel I dreamed of a bal musette in a country where people have green skin. I dreamed of what powers people could win by going through a dangerous door, and I listed all the different kinds of magic England could have based upon its history and historical beliefs.

This is the moment before my dreams reach the outside world.

Each novel has its own path in the outside world. I have a deep and vast desire with this one that readers will take my dreams and add their own, that they will walk in my France and my England and my Tsarfat. I took hundreds of pictures as my world came to life in my mind. To make it easier, I plan to share my pictures, some on Patreon in a few days, others on any website or at any online convention that wants to join my magic journey.

Why do I have this deep and vast desire? An imagined journey is the perfect way to explore in this difficult time. I love the thought of safe excitement in the strange time we live in.

Remembrance

On Memorial Day of 2020, as the pandemic was really getting going and many were sheltering in isolation, a new tradition was initiated: Taps Across America. Assisted by publicity from Steve Hartman of CBS’s On the Road, the movement inspired thousands of Americans to pause at 3:00 p.m. local time and play “Taps.”

The idea came from the National Moment of Remembrance in honor of Memorial Day, an annual event initiated by Congress in 2000. Americans, wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, are asked to pause for one minute to remember those who have died in military service to the United States. Because the pandemic had us staying at home instead of getting together for barbecues in 2020, this was a way of doing something together to honor the moment.

It’s almost enough to make me want to learn to play the bugle. Though I am not a buglar, I do play the clarinet, and I intend to play “Taps” at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day this year.

Why?

Because it’s this kind of shared moment that can save our country. This kind of thing brings us together, at a time when so many forces are seeking to divide us. This kind of moment is what America needs to heal its collective soul.

While my own immediate family doesn’t include military veterans, my spouse’s family does, and I will be honoring them as well with my playing. I invite you to join me in this moment, if not by playing “Taps,” then by observing the National Moment of Remembrance.

And then you can get on with your barbecue.

 

Still focussing on little things

An Australian prime minister got into much trouble for quoting (many, many years ago) that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” We’re so busy focussing on the big picture and the life-threatening health issues that sometimes the small pass us by. I’m a constant reminder to others that the small is also important. And that life is not always easy and it’s seldom simple or straightforward.

I turned sixty on 25 April, and had a good (but small and quiet) birthday. I wanted to do All the Things, but pandemic is pandemic. It’s just as well I wasn’t impossibly ambitious because I had a bit of an infection in a joint on my right hand. It became quite severe very quickly and I’m still on antibiotics for it. Today is the first day I’ve been able to type anything that long since then. Everything hurt, including sleep.

That’s my reminder. Turning sixty is no big deal. Ignoring a sore finger can become one, if one doesn’t take care.

I needed the reminder, because around me all kinds of people have moved back into normal life… and I can’t do anything like that until I’m vaccinated. I receive my first shot on 21 May.

I’ll be very busy the next few days, for I have until Friday to catch up on everything delayed due to the hand-that-would-not work. I can’t put any of it off, for the edits of a novel are about to come through. The novel was delayed by pandemic ramifications (it affects our lives in so many ways) and I’m really looking forward to seeing what a US editor makes of my Australian voice. So I’m going from bad to wonderful, via a busy path.

Today was an in-between day. I was well enough to do an hour’s work and three hours of meetings. The rest of the time I complained at people, obtained more medication, and told everyone “May the Fourth Be With You.” I watched a bit of Star Wars, for it seemed the right thing to do.

I started writing this after midnight. This post, then is my first step towards much writing of various kinds.  In fact, you are the first readers of anything more than two painful sentences in nine days.

I’ll report back in a fortnight and let you know how everything went. In the meantime, don’t do what I did! If something hurts and you have no idea why, take it to the doctor as quickly as possible.

Because of the pandemic, I planned to celebrate my birthday for as long as it takes. I’ll start again when I stop hurting. Soon. Very soon.

Our prime minister complained for the rest of his life that we’d all missed the critical second part of his quote. Malcolm Fraser had paraphrased George Bernard Shaw and was trying to tell us all that life could, nevertheless, be delightful. Like my birthday. Like seeing friends through Zoom. Fraser made a tactical error in assuming that the press cared about communicating the second half of his quote but right now… his idea wasn’t far removed from my everyday.