What Travel Teaches

I have just taken a 2,000 mile train trip from Oakland, California, to Chicago, followed by a bus ride from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend WisCon. Next week I’ll have some WisCon tales, but this week the joys and travails of travel in the United States are on my mind.

First of all, Amtrak’s California Zephyr is set up to take passengers through both the Sierras in eastern California and the Rockies in Colorado. So much of the scenery is drop dead gorgeous. Here’s a shot from the Sierras to show you what I mean.

a flowing river in Eastern California in the Sierra Mountains

Even after all the development and expansion in the United States, not to mention the amount of mismanagement of our lands, we still have a beautiful country. And the people who plan the Amtrak routes across the west have set up schedules that give you all the best views.

You get to sit on the train and watch the beauty go by. You don’t get the details you see when hiking, but you get the big picture in all its glory.

There are back roads throughout the country where you can drive and get views like this, but the nice thing about the train is that someone else is paying attention to where you’re going. All you have to do is look.

And by the way, the western United States is as green as I’ve ever seen it this year. Even the desert had lots of green spots and blooming flowers. There’s still snow at higher altitudes. This was a northern route train, of course, though I know the Southern California desert is also very green.

It’s hard not to just take pleasure in that, even knowing that the drought isn’t over and how much damage was caused by the winter rains. I don’t think we’ll ever again have the luxury of not worrying about drought, flooding, and other weather disasters brought on or amplified by climate change, but I’m not going to stop enjoying beauty wherever I can see it.

And you can see it by train.

That’s the joy. The downside of it is that the trip from Oakland to Chicago takes 52 hours, from Monday morning until Wednesday afternoon. That’s 52 hours if the train is on time. Ours was about 4 hours late. Continue reading “What Travel Teaches”

Gillian’s a-cold (again)

Today is the day of small things.

I have to get rid of 100 emails from my impossible in-box. I have to visit the dentist. I have to read two books so that I can write 1000 words on them. I have to do six other things that I’ve put off because the last days have been less than merry.

It all has to be finished by close of business.

Why am I being such a Red Queen and running frantically on the sport?

Partly it’s because the financial year ends on 30 June, so everyone in Canberra is running frantically on the spot. It’s one of the interesting side-effects of working in the national capital. Once my friends retire, they lose this deadline fervour. When they’re all retired, this time of year will be a doddle. Right now, however, as someone finishes something, they send me an email and I have to do the follow-up.

Partly it’s because the northern hemisphere is heading for summer and so there are conventions and meetings and other cool things. Someone else’s summer means they want to finish things before they go on holiday. More things get pushed into my in-tray.

I want to hibernate this winter. That’s what particularly cold winters are for. Snuggling in the one place that stays warm, and sleeping until the wind is less icy. Right now, my heaters work overtime to keep my flat’s temperature above 13 (that’s 55.4 for my US readers). Other Australians, strangely cheerful, tell me to put on more clothes, but I am asthmatic and 13 is the trigger point for attacks. If it weren’t for the asthma and my tendency to want to hibernate, this season would be perfect. When I was a child I opened my windows wide and adored the cold night air. Mind you, when I was a child I also wondered why I woke up in the middle of the night unable to breathe. I would get up early and dress and go outside and watch for sky spectacle. This is how I saw the Southern Aurora in suburban Melbourne.

I nearly forgot that the cold in Canberra is due to icy winds. The wind that brings beautifully fresh air up from Antarctica (which is particularly chill at this time of year, for so many meanings of the word ‘chill’) blows across the mountains to us. Snowfall began early this year.

Do not ask what the wind chill factor is (only 3 degrees right now, because right now the air is almost still), or why Australian buildings are more built for heat and cold and can be difficult to keep warm. Just ask yourself, “When will Gillian stop complaining?” I shall stop complaining when I’m all caught up, and when my flat reaches 18 degrees C. Neither of these things is likely to happen this week.

Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors

On May 15, ASHRAE — the association of engineers who work in heating, air conditioning, and ventilation — set out its Proposed Standard 241P, Control of Infectious Aerosols.

They are soliciting comments on it until May 26 from the public. Links and instructions for comments can be found here.

This standard, which was put together over six months — lightning speed for ASHRAE, which often takes years to develop new standards due to its painstaking process — was built on years of work by the organization on indoor air quality and included some input from public health experts.

According to ASHRAE:

The standard will address long-range transmission of infectious aerosols and provides minimum requirements for:

  • Equivalent outdoor air (combined effect of ventilation, filtration, and air cleaning) for use during Infection Risk Mitigation Mode
  • Room air distribution to reduce risk
  • Characterization of filter and air cleaner effectiveness and safety
  • Commissioning, including development and implementation of a Building Readiness Plan
  • System operation in Infection Risk Mitigation Mode during periods of high risk
  • Maintenance tasks and their minimum frequency
  • Residences and health care facilities

ASHRAE issued some recommendations early in the pandemic that provided guidelines for the kind of filtration that should be used in buildings to minimize transmission of airborne viruses. Those guidelines, though very good, were based on ongoing work on indoor air quality and did not include the kind of comprehensive work they brought to this new standard.

These standards, once incorporated into building codes and other regulations for buildings, will be a major step forward in making sure that the indoor air is safe to breathe. In a world in which many people spend most of their time indoors, that is a crucial element of public health.

These standards will minimize the transmission of airborne diseases including, but not limited to, Covid. Continue reading “Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors”

On Feeling Better about the World, one email at a time

I’m sorry I missed posting last week. I fully intended to write, but then my birthday started (unexpectedly) a little early with a movie, and by the time I took a breath it was Tuesday night my time. I felt much loved. But I missed posting.

The visit to the movie for my birthday is a tradition that began some years ago. A friend admitted he never knew what to get me and I admitted I never got to the cinema. Because my birthday is a national holiday in Australia there are often new releases, and, since both of us enjoy superhero movies, I have seen a number of them over the years, as my birthday treat. This year my friend was away on the birthday itself, so he suggested we go see Kuzume the night before. Not quite my birthday and not quite a superhero movie, but the perfect movie for my current mood and I still have that birthday tradition.

The next day (my actual birthday) I had an afternoon with friends, followed by dinner. And messages. Many, many birthday messages. I still have a few emails to open and answer. I think I’m putting off the last few because I want this feeling of being treasured to last a little longer. I do live alone and these last few years that has taken a big toll. Every friend who remembers me and talks to me is so very, very important.

Other people worry as they get older. I always love birthdays because it’s a day when people around me stop and remember “I need to send Gillian a message” or even give me a gift. There is a special wonder in this for an older single woman without children. For a brief time my life matters.

I no longer get a family time at the Jewish high holy days (it’s a long story and entirely inappropriate to talk about). I have created an extended family-by-choice time to replace it so that my high holy days have love and happiness and much food (except for Yom Kippur, which is alone and foodless), but there aren’t the family traditions of presents and hugs from all the children in the family-by-choice, largely because most of them associate all that stuff with Christmas. Christmas is the festival I celebrate with friends and for those friends – it’s their festival and I have a lovely time, but it’s not about me and never should be about me. My birthday, though, if I can get people I love, a slice of cake and a clinky glass full of very nice Shiraz and a few hugs and some parcels to open… it gives me hope for the whole year. This year I experienced the first full set of hugs since COVID. It was rash of me, because I’m still COVID-vulnerable, but I daring accepted all hugs  then, soon after, the children and I put our heads together and plotted (and also tested a CO2 meter: the verdict was that the best place for me to live ie the safest place with the most oxygen… was the letterbox) – these are amazing things and three years without them was far too long. I had a lovely birthday.

If you know any people who are alone and don’t get a special day, wishing them happy birthday can mean a lot. Unless they’re like someone I know who hates birthdays with a cold-death-glare. You should find another day to make these someones feel loved. May 1, for instance. Or September 1. Find a day and buy them coffee or send them an email or drop in. It’s a handy way of making sure that people who are alone are not actually lonely.

Now I need to find out a way to remind all those who love me that it’d be nice to see them a bit more and to feel that love more often. I shall work on this. In the meantime, I shall watch the letterbox (not the COVID-safe one – my untested-for-oxygen one). Two friends sent me something fir my birthday and those somethings have yet to arrive.

I do adore this one (very, very extended) day in the year.

Enjoying fandom, online

I’m a bit late this week to the Treehouse because my Monday included a science fiction convention in the UK. I was on three panels, and I had such a fine time that I’m reluctant to let it go and get back to my everyday. The amazing thing about this is that, because of the usual health issues, I had to attend long-distance. Hybrid events are changing and with those changes come ever-increased level s of being an actual and real part of the events one is attending via computer.

My hybrid panels meant I was a giant head on a screen, but I was just as much part of the discussion. There was one when I felt a bit on the side, but that wasn’t due to the hybridity, it was due to me trying to be brief for the audience and the other panellists talking at great length. Since, in real life panels (or meat panels, as someone described them over the weekend) I’ve been guilty of exactly this thing, I now feel that the universe is a bit balanced and maybe, next time, we can all talk about the same amount. I was able to talk freely about my research past and present and about my fiction and about all sorts of things that mattered to me. And that talk was part of extended and fascinating discussions with others.

What made the difference, for me, was that the online audience chatted in Discord throughout the panel. I could see what the audience thought if I was able, and I could drop in and chat when my end was quiet. When I was audience in panels, I actually had a better panel experience than face to face because we all made smart remarks and added our own insights and got excited when something clever was said.

If I’d been able to get to Conversation in person, I can see that we would have moved to the bar or tea room after several panels (both the ones I was on and the ones I was audience in), but the Discord aspect gave me some of that. I didn’t make new best friends, but I did meet new and wonderful people and we’re already working on catching up sometime. And I got to spend quality time with old friends. And… it was all at my computer.

The biggest thing is that I’m as well today, the day after the convention, as I was the day before the convention. I so hope that hybrid conventions become the norm and that they are all as clever (or cleverer!) than Conversation, where those of us who are not blessed with abundant good health and the capacity to travel (and the finances to travel, and the time to travel and all the other reasons many of us can’t get to live events) still have an amazing time.

There are four US events (that I know of) that work like this, and I’m already signed up for three of them this year. Those committees who put in that extra work to make conferences work for as many of us as possible are amazing. Every time I emerge from someone online that leaves me feeling as if the world is friendly and welcoming and that isolation is relative. This weekend I feel all that, but that my work is appreciated, as well.

I am raising my cup of tea right now to all those who make hybrid conventions possible, but particularly to the amazing group who ran Conversation in Birmingham, this weekend.

Acting Collectively

I find myself thinking a lot these days about the difference between individual and collective solutions to problems.

As a lifetime martial artist, I believe personal responsibility is important, especially in a crisis situation. But personal responsibility does not necessarily mean individual solutions; rather it means that you take action in a situation instead of wringing your hands.

It can, for example, mean you follow the evacuation plan out of a disaster area. Or that you organize your neighbors to deal with a disaster. Or that you follow public health recommendations about things like wearing masks and getting vaccines. You take personal responsibility to behave in a useful and collective way.

But in the United States, we all too often take the attitude that all problems are individual, not collective, with the “you do you” approach to the pandemic being only the latest example.

A couple of weeks ago I did a lot of driving on California freeways, which made me extremely aware of how building a society around cars takes individualism to an extreme. We have this whole network of high-speed roads, driven on by people with varying degrees of skill in vehicles of all sizes and in all conditions of repair.

Individualism only goes so far in that situation. Even if I’m doing my best to drive safely and responsibly, there are only so many options to protect myself on a six-lane highway clogged with cars if someone else is driving like an idiot or even just has a tire blow out.

43,000 people died due to traffic “accidents” in the U.S. in 2021. (I put “accidents” in quote marks because I read Jessie Singer’s There Are No Accidents, a book that points out that many of the deaths and injuries we put under that title are caused by policy decisions. I wrote about it here.)

I wonder what our life would be like today if we had put the same amount of money that went into motor vehicle infrastructure into rail systems.

Rail is collective; cars are individual. Continue reading “Acting Collectively”

Everyday: the update

My life is very busy right now. Just for once, Im going to skip over the health stuff entirely. I know I’m juggling newly hatched chicks and cannot drop them: you don’t need to know about the enar-misses and the squawks and the way my hands are scratched and pecked at. To avoid talking about being sick, then, I’m going to make a list.

Ten things I’m doing this week.

1. Researching – this is my regular research and is all about how the built worlds are described in novels. Not just any novels. Fairy tale retellings.

2. More researching. I’m giving an academic paper that involves close knowledge of Marvel movies and of Old French chansons de geste and Medieval Arthurian tales. I’m not reading and watching all these stories from scratch. This is stuff I’ve known for years, especially the chansons de geste. My first academic analysis of Old French epic legends was in 1982. (I grow old.) It’s the most fun revision ever, and it’s going to last me through until May. It’s my spare-time reading and viewing, and a really good reason to get other work done.

3. Eating. I’m finishing food up for Passover. Tonight I became so tired of it that I ordered takeaway dinner. Three hours later I got my act together again and mung beans are madly sprouting for eating in two days. That’s the last of the mung beans.

4. Preparing for Passover, the rest of it. So much work… and I have to start extra early because of not being that well. I watch my progress every day. Today’s big event was making sure I had the right birthday present for my mother and that she could have it on the right day. If I fail at everything else, as long as Mum has her birthday present and I have the right food and a clean kitchen I can manage.

5. Preparing for the UK’s National Science Fiction Convention. It’s called Conversation and everything I know about the programme so far says that even the online programme is going to be wonderful. British fan interests aren’t the same as North American fan interests (although there is overlap) which is why I love going to virtual conventions in both regions. If Australia ran a virtual convention, I would attend here, too.

6. Everything else. I have a list, and right now it’s a lost list, so ‘Everything else’ is the best I can do!

How to Help Girls (and Everyone!) Cope with Pandemic Depression

This article first appeared in The Conversation and is republished here in a slightly condensed form under a Creative Commons license. It’s so important, it deserves to be widely read.

Previous CDC research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected girls. And in a 2021 study that our team conducted with 240 teens, 70% of girls said that they “very much” missed seeing people during the pandemic, compared with only 28% of boys reporting that sentiment.

A second factor is social media, which can be a wonderful source of support but also, at times, a crushing blow to the self-esteem and psychological well-being of girls.

Finally, we think that all young people are struggling with issues like climate change and social upheaval.
Here are six strategies that research shows can work.

1. More emphasis on social support

Social and emotional connectivity between humans is likely one of the most potent weapons we have against significant stress and sadness. Studies have found strong links between a lack of parental and peer support and depression during adolescence. Support from friends can also help mitigate the link between extreme adolescent anxiety and suicidal thoughts. In one study of teens, social support was linked to greater resilience – such as being better able to withstand certain types of social cruelty like bullying.

2. Supporting one another instead of competing

Research has found that social media encourages competition between girls, particularly around their physical appearance. Teaching girls at young ages to be cheerleaders for one another – and modeling that behavior as grownups – can help ease the sense of competition that today’s teens are facing.

3. Showcasing achievements

Thinking about your own appearance is natural and understandable. But an overemphasis on what you look like is clearly not healthy, and it is strongly associated with depression and anxiety, especially in women.

Adults can play a key role in encouraging girls to value other qualities, such as their artistic abilities or intelligence. Childhood can be a canvas for children to discover where their talents lie, which can be a source of great satisfaction in life.

One way that adults can help is simply by acknowledging and celebrating those qualities. For instance, at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, an organization we direct and manage that is focused on prevention of bullying and cyberbullying, staff members post female achievements – be they intellectual, artistic, scientific, athletic or literary – on social media channels every Friday, using the hashtag #FridaysForFemales. Continue reading “How to Help Girls (and Everyone!) Cope with Pandemic Depression”

Getting Sick

I got sick a couple of weeks ago. Nothing very serious, as near as I can tell. Not Covid — the symptoms were wrong plus I tested just in case because if it was that, I wanted the antiviral.

Mostly my joints were aching and I felt off and blah, but then I checked my blood pressure one morning and not only was it up, but my resting pulse was way faster than usual.

That scared me enough to go see a doctor (and thankfully I could get in to see someone on Friday afternoon, not something I would ever count on). I recounted my various symptoms and while she offered to refer me to a specialist if I wanted one, in her opinion it wasn’t anything serious and would resolve on its own.

Now in truth, those are pretty much the words I always want to hear from a doctor, especially as I get older. The last thing in the world I want is for a doctor to think it sounds serious and send me for a bunch of tests that will probably just lead to more tests and maybe they’ll find something that isn’t even what I was worried about when I called the doctor.

I mean, I’m OK with medication if it’s clear what I need. But in truth, when I get scared enough to check with doctor, I am really hoping for “it’s nothing to worry about.”

I walk a thin line between “ignore it and it’ll go away” and “what if I miss something that will kill me if I don’t get treatment now?”

I was talking with a doctor friend over the weekend about my experience and she said that it was a tricky line for a doctor, too. You don’t want to dismiss a patient’s experience, but sometimes it does seem that there really isn’t anything that needs to be done.

Interesting from both points of view. There are, of course, many people whose health issues have been dismissed for years. That is another, important issue, but it isn’t mine. Most of the time I know my body well enough to know what kind of help I need — I’ve become a big fan of physical therapy — and I only get nervous when something new happens.

I wasn’t very sick, but I felt lousy for a week. While I often have 24-hour bugs, this is the first time in years when I’ve been sick for days.

It left me with this reaction: Why don’t more people want to avoid getting sick? Continue reading “Getting Sick”

Publication in the time of COVID – another anecdote

I want to introduce you to Poison and Light, but I have no idea how to do this. It was released during the first year of COVID and so most bookshops have not been interested in it: it’s available from online stores, mainly. It was a finalist for an award, but there was no ceremony for that award, so no-one noticed it there, either.

This is all ironic, because it’s the book I wrote for people who wanted this history with the panoply and the danger. It has a Code Duello, and costume drama, and hot air balloons, and tentacled aliens, and secretive printers, and evil conspiracies, and the main protagonist is the last refugee from old Earth.

There’s one special character in it who was going to get their own novel if this took off, because they are just so very cool. I say ‘they,’ because even though they publicly identified as male, they didn’t always privately identify as male. It’s their idealism and their amazing clothes’ sense and their even more amazing rapier skills that made me want to know more.

I’m not the only person to want more of Fabian. Instead of summarising my novel, then, I’m going to send you to a review of it. That way you can see what both the novel and Fabian look like to someone other than me: https://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2021/03/03/poison-and-light-gillian-polack-shooting-star-press-2020/

Me, I wrote Poison and Light because I wanted to explore a world that wanted to hide its head in the sand by pretending it was in the eighteenth century. Some residents of New Ceres thought they were in a world where nobles ruled, gloriously. Others thought they were in a world with decadence they could enjoy. Still others are planning a revolution. You get some of all of this in the novel, but it was going to be a series if it sold well enough, and there was far more excitement in store in those later volumes that will now never happen. There are issues that would have emerged concerning failed terraforming, for instance (we need more novels about failed terraforming, given what we’re doing to our own planet right now), and of slavery, and of how much New Ceres could remain its independent and dangerous quirky self when the rest of the galaxy had recovered from the war. How does the dream of history hold up against reality?

The novel I’m working on now is set in that same universe, but back on Earth. Only one character overlaps. I’m sorry, but that character is not Fabian.

I used actual 18th century texts and ideas and stories to build the world of the novel. That novel was part of the research project into how fiction writers use history, and testing the concepts other fiction writers presented me with gave me far more insight into what they did than if I’d simply collated my interview notes. It doesn’t come up in History and Fiction, and nor should it. When I use novels to test ideas, those ideas become part of the novel. I still have to check those ideas against my research for my academic side.

This means you can read Poison and Light without caring a jot about Gillian-the-researcher. You can enter it for the strange future world and for the people. In a perfect world, my readers do this. They look at my characters and pick the actors they would love to be playing them. Which leaves my second last thought as, “I have no idea who would play Fabian.”

My last thought is that I need to write more about Poison and Light. It deserves to be seen.