Apocalypse Now

If you’ve ever wondered what you would do in the apocalypse, look at what you’re doing now.

That’s your answer.

OK, before you either panic or tell me I’m overreacting, let me break some of that down.

First off, while I am using apocalypse in its current casual meaning of a collapse of civilization, I’m not including the various religious interpretations. This isn’t the fundamentalist End Times.

And in truth, I don’t mean the end of the (human) world, because I’ve never believed that was going to happen even at the height of the Cold War when the US and the Soviets were rattling so many missiles at each other.

We’re not going to all be living in caves or in isolated groups with no access to the many things we humans have developed over the years. We’ll even have a lot of the good things left.

But we are already in a period of change and chaos, some of it extreme and much of it causing a great deal of human suffering. It’s going to keep happening. Of course, like everything else in this world, it will not be equally distributed.

So despite the fact that some of that change is going to be catastrophic, you’re still going to have to pay your taxes, get the groceries, and take the cat to the vet, all while trying to dodge the crisis du jour, whether pandemic, disaster, or political.

From the way things look right now, we’re going to continue to have all three of those crises for the foreseeable future. Continue reading “Apocalypse Now”

Coping With Winter Blues

Painting by David Cox (1783-1859)

 

As the year draws to a close, I reflect that it’s been, as Mark Twain put it, “One damned thing after another.” Some good, some not-so-good, some most excellent, some terror-inducing. Whatever is happening, however, I remember the mantra, “This too shall pass!”

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.

What helps get you through winter blues?

Treading Lightly – Repurposed Calendar Art

Treading Lightly is a blog series on ways to lighten our carbon footprint.


I have a confession to make – I am a hoarder of old calendar pages. I love the photos and artwork, and some of it I just can’t bear to throw in the recycle bin. So I tear it out and keep it, pin it up on a bulletin board, and gaze at it now and then.

Another confession: I am addicted to stationery, specifically pretty notecards. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been writing lots of notes to friends and family, and going through a lot of cards.

This fall I had an epiphany that brought these two (ahem) habits together into a new way of treading lightly. Hand-made notecards!

The art starts out something like this: (a page from the 2021 Sierra Club engagement calendar).

I trim it, and if there’s a photo credit as there is here, I trim that out too, then glue them onto cardstock cut to an appropriate size. (A paper cutter makes this and subsequent trimming pretty easy.) I add a sticker pointing out that the art is repurposed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I make the envelopes, too. I’m sure I could buy some, but I enjoy this, and it’s also a lower carbon footprint to make my own.

I even make some out of eco-friendly gift wrap*.

 

 

 

 

This year’s holiday cards will, I hope, bring additional inspiration to their recipients along with my wishes for the happiest of holidays.


*Alas, foil and glitter render paper un-recyclable, and many of the inks used to print gift-wrap (and cards) are toxic. Sadly, tissue paper is un-recyclable as well. Fortunately there are plenty of sources for eco-friendly gift wrap – or you could make your own! Check out https://www.ecosia.org/search?q=eco-friendly+gift+wrap

What I’ve Learned From Crows

crows Shortly after dawn most mornings, a crow calls loudly, “Caw, caw, caw, caw.” It seems to be speaking to the whole neighborhood of crows, though I’m not sure how large an area this announcement covers. I refer to this as the “Call to Prayer,” because it reminds me of the calls used by mosques, but I don’t know its true purpose.

Shortly after the call, crows come by our window box, collect the cat kibble we put out the night before, and have a drink in the pan we’ve put out for that purpose. The actual time this happens varies depending on what time the sun comes up. It can be a bit later on days when the marine layer is strong, but the crows will be out and about even on overcast days.

Except when they’re sitting on eggs and raising fledglings, the crows don’t sleep in our neighborhood. Every evening, not long before sunset, they start flying to their roost. I am told by others that one big roosting place is along the Berkeley shoreline. I suspect there are a number; there are a lot of crows in the East Bay.

They do build nests in our neighborhood, but we have never been sure exactly where their nests are. They are very good at concealing them in the larger trees somewhere.

Crows are obviously quite social. They hang out in family groups, some of them clearly the young from earlier in the year or a year or two before. However, each small family group has territory within the neighborhood, and they seem to be careful not to invade each other’s areas.

They can tell people apart, which puts them one up on us, because we cannot tell crows apart by appearance. We know one group because of where we see them regularly and because they have almost no fear of us. When we toss kibble for them, they will fly right down. Others, who also live nearby, wait until we’ve moved on to collect the goodies. Continue reading “What I’ve Learned From Crows”

I Have Been Somewhere Else

The pool at the Hotel Bonaventure has a guardian owl.

Specifically, I have been in Montreal at the World Fantasy Convention. It was lovely. Not like any other WFC I have been to but there are plenty of reasons for that. For one thing, it’s in a Francophone area of the country, and my French is wobbly at best (fortunately, everyone I encountered spoke English, but I like to at least make the attempt). For another, the convention was a hybrid in-person/virtual format. WFC is usually a smallish convention–membership is generally capped at 1,000, but I don’t think on-site attendance for this con was more than 300. So it was… intimate. In a responsibly socially-distanced sort of way.

And soooooo safe. You cannot enter Canada without proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test. I was also selected for random testing at the Toronto airport (and it turned out the tech who entered my information writes SF, and was deeply envious about my destination and sent me a sample of his work). Continue reading “I Have Been Somewhere Else”

Making Things Different

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.

— David Graeber

This is important. This is why I’ve been reading economics. I’m trying to understand the difference between our assumptions of how things work and what the actual constraints are. There are some limits on how we can make the world, but they’re rooted in the basic laws of physics and biology — neither of which we completely understand.

From my study, I’ve begun to understand that most of the rules of economics that are currently in use are built on faulty assumptions. If we toss out those assumptions and build on ideas that are much closer to actual reality, we can, as Graeber said, make a different and better world.

Living things die. Even if we discover more and better ways to extend life, living things will still die. I don’t think we’re going to get around that one. I’m not even sure we should, despite the fact that I would still like to live forever because I want to know what happens next.

But there are environments that are good for living things, ones that are bad, and some that are toxic. To apply Graeber’s thinking here: we have allowed systems that put people in bad and toxic environments for the financial benefit of a few. We do not have to do that. If all living things die, we can’t prevent that, but we can prevent them from dying prematurely of illnesses brought on by toxic environments.

A recent study points out that four million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution brought on by making things for the consumption-oriented wealthy countries.

Many of those people are elderly and have health conditions aggravated by particle pollution, but that doesn’t mean their lives weren’t valuable. Also, while the study doesn’t mention it, I suspect many of the health conditions were caused by the air pollution in the first place.

We can build a world in which healthy lives for all is more important than profit and the assumption that those with money can do whatever they want. That, of course, means a potent environmental protection program. Continue reading “Making Things Different”

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”