Gossip and Community

The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It’s so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it’s in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.

To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the ‘net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.

I’ve been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I’ve been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?
Gossip is either one of the forms of glue that bind a community together“news,” as it wereor else a pernicious form of social control, of putting people down/who’s in-who’s out/of taking glee in the misfortunes of others, of basking in reflected and unearned glory.

Where this is leading is that such statements can be hurtful and damaging whether they are true or not. They are particularly embarrassing to the tellers when they are false and that falsehood is revealed. Human beings are peculiar creatures. When we have injured someone by passing on a rumor, false or not, instead of doing what we can to ameliorate the situation, we set about defending ourselves. “But it was true!” is one tactic, or “I didn’t know!” or “Blame the person who told this to me!” Or we find some way to shift responsibility to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Even well-meaning people, people who see themselves as honest and kind, people who should have known better than to spread rumors, do this.

I believe that when we engage in gossip or rumor, we damage not only the person we have spoken ill of, but the bonds of trust in our community. We divide ourselves into those who are safe confidantes and those who are tattlers, between those who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and those who will use any excuse to criticize and condemn us. Continue reading “Gossip and Community”

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.

I Love My Body

I love my body. As a woman raised in a society that teaches women that their bodies are imperfect and inferior, I bring to this love a sense of heart-felt victory. 

It is important to note that I did not spend my life trying to hammer my body into some artificial idea of perfection. Even if I had one of the body types that have been pre-selected as perfectable — and I do not — it wouldn’t have worked because I did what everyone does all the time every day: I got older. 

Being old — a subjective state that depends on what you’re trying to do — makes it impossible to be perfect in any physical sense. And like most young people, I didn’t realize how cute I was when I was young. I was still struggling with not being “right”.

Because all women get that lesson. We’re not right.

I’m discussing this in terms of women, because I’m most familiar with how that happens. Men, at least straight white men within a range of body types, don’t get these lessons the same way. 

There are a number of other body issues that come up for those who are trans or nonbinary or otherwise not part of what society has deemed to be the way things are. The history of mocking gay men as too feminine and lesbians as too male sets the stage for even harsher abuse of trans and nonbinary people.

All people raised as women, in pretty much all cultures, get the message that their bodies are imperfect. In some cultures, they are even treated as the source of all sin (evangelical Christians, for example). Their bodies are wrong.

I learned to love my body by taking up martial arts. I know that’s a stretch, because one aspect of martial arts is learning to do things with your body, some of which are very difficult. And further, martial arts training is often based on some very male thinking, so the idea of what bodies are supposed to do and how they are supposed to look makes the assumption that women are inferior in some way.

And yet, training first in karate and later more extensively in Aikido taught me to love my body, because I figured out that I learned things by using my body, that I was not just the person who thought, but also the person who moved.  Continue reading “I Love My Body”

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”

“The Changer and the Changed”

A couple of days ago I got to thinking about a summer day back in the 1980s when a group of women put on an all-day women’s music festival on a hillside next to a junior high school in Takoma Park, Maryland. I was there with my friend Victoria Eves, a professional videographer, and ran sound for the video she made of the event.

I couldn’t remember the exact year, or the name of the event, but, as is our wont these days, I googled, and not only found that the first Sisterfire event happened in 1982, but the video Victoria made that year. I even have a credit as the sound recordist. This website has a vimeo of it set up.

It’s an hour-long video that captures some of the high points of an amazing day. I got tears in my eyes watching it. All those wonderful musicians, the enthusiastic audience scattered over the hillside, the feminist activism that underlay everything that went on.

We were all so young then. We were all so ready to go out and claim our places in the world. And to change it.

We were, in fact, very much like the young activists I meet today. And yeah, for those of you who pay attention to generational things, both the performers and the audience were mostly Boomers, though since some of them had kids there were some members of Gen X running around as well.

Sisterfire represented a lot of the best of second wave feminism. Continue reading ““The Changer and the Changed””

Risk Assessment and Puppy Love

I love my dog, and would probably take her with me everywhere.  But. Not everyone is comfortable around dogs.  Dogs are not comfortable around all people (even if they’re perfectly nice people).  It’s often less “personal” and more gut-instinctive, even if both dog and humans are otherwise great to be around. And even when there’s a good fit, it’s not a one-and-done: managing relationships between people and dogs can be complicated, and requires both awareness and honesty on the part of the humans involved.  This lesson, unfortunately, came at personal expense, and I’m hoping that telling it will help others NOT have to spend the same emotional coin.

Recently I was traveling with several companions, and my year-old ACD-mix, Maxi. Max had met my companions before, and gotten along with them.What I didn’t know, however, was that one of my companions was uneasy around dogs, due to a negative childhood experience. This led to complications, as my friend did some thing they shouldn’t have done – and wouldn’t have done if they knew dogs better – and Max reacted badly but within natural dog parameters, barking and snapping in defensive mode.

This,  of course, upset my friend greatly.  Totally understandable – it dragged up past emotional trauma and put them in the wrong headspace to enjoy our travel.  And it upset Max greatly, as her boundaries had been violated by someone she had previously trusted.

Fortunately, we were in a position where I could keep Max separate from my friend for the rest of the trip, but it definitely caused some complications, and, unfortunately, tensions.

The worst thing about this was that the situation could have been avoided if my friend had let me know earlier about their long-standing unease around dogs. Ideally, from the first time they were introduced.  No dog owner worth their kibble would’ve mocked, or thought less of them for it; in most cases it’s an irrational fear you can’t just wish away.

But what we can do something about is limiting exposure, and clarifying boundaries. In this case, I would’ve kept more distance between human and dog from the beginning, while teaching my friend positive dog management (and in doing so, ideally prevent the negative situation from occurring in the first place.)

But we can’t bloody well do any of that if we don’t know there’s a problem.

Please. If you have a fear of dogs, or simply don’t like them, don’t be afraid to tell your friends with dogs about it. And if you have a dog, make sure to check in with your friends, and make sure they’re comfortable with the dog being around.  Literally, an ounce of prevention can solve a pound of problems before they even happen.

(And you/your friend may discover that a little learning can go a long way toward reducing that unease. Which, when you think about it, is a life lesson that doesn’t just apply here.)

a red-and-cream dog, seated, looking up at the camera

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.

What We Can Do

Reading Lyz Lenz’s latest newsletter (“Thank You, Dads of YouTube” ) brought me to the edge of tears.

It wasn’t her success at fixing her washer that got me. It was the fact that a woman much younger than I am still grew up surrounded by the belief that there were things women couldn’t do.

As someone old enough to remember how important this issue was in second wave feminism 50 years ago, it breaks my heart to know that so many people are still growing up with these stunted beliefs.

I don’t doubt that it’s true. It’s why I hope to teach some more self defense classes if we ever get enough of a handle on the pandemic for me to feel comfortable in a room full of people learning to yell “No.” Way too many women still believe that the fact that the average man is a little stronger than the average woman means they can’t protect themselves.

Spending half my life in the martial arts watching small people kick the asses of big people did that one in for me. I want to make sure other people know it, too.

We did make legal progress in the second wave, though the recent outrageous action of the partisan hacks on the US Supreme Court in nullifying the right to abortion by allowing a clearly unconstitutional Texas law to take effect is damaging legal rights as well.

(I was in law school when Roe v. Wade was decided. That was also a Texas case and I have met the lawyer who brought it — she was also my state representative back in the day.)

The same hacks also dismantled voting rights laws. It is not just women under attack in our society.

The extremist attacks make me angry, but the fact that so many women are still buying into the myths we fought to overcome in the 1970s is what breaks my heart. Continue reading “What We Can Do”

Zen Yoga Writing practice?

A confession: I like to read at bedtime. In this company, that’s nothing unusual. All the sleep hygiene experts say not to, that beds should be used for sleeping and only one other activity. What do they know? I find something deeply comforting about curling up with a good–but not too exciting–book. Perhaps it evokes memories of my mother reading aloud to me, or it’s just “me time.”

Often I include in my nightly reading a page or two of something that stretches my mind. I don’t mean that in the intellectual sense, for I definitely want to be quieting my thoughts, not forcing myself to think critically. I try to choose books that get inside my brains and stretch them gently in unexpected directions, like mental yoga before settling into my comfort reading.

An example of this kind of reading is Natalie Goldberg’s LONG QUIET HIGHWAY. Goldberg is a writing teacher, essayist and novelist who is also a long-time student of Zen Buddhism. I was introduced to her work years ago with her WRITING DOWN THE BONES, and had always thought of her as a teacher in the style of Julia Cameron: “Morning pages,” keep the pen moving, let your thoughts flow, that sort of advice. LONG QUIET HIGHWAY is autobiographical rather than instructive. I was deeply moved by how she put together mundane, specific details in ways that brought tears to my eyes. More than that, she has gotten me thinking — or rather, feeling/sensing — more deeply about the role of writing in my own life. Yes, it’s a pleasure and an obsession; yes, it’s my occupation, how I earn my living.

  • Mountain Pose: Could it also be the lens through which I view the world? Sure, no problem; every new experience is grist for the mill. That’s the easy answer, just as the plot skeleton is the easy description of a story. As a writer, I know that storyness is much deeper than plot. Can I use that same insight to listen more deeply, look beyond appearances, appreciate the interwoven complexity of my community and environment?
  • Dancing Shiva Pose: How about writing as a spiritual practice? Um, isn’t that a bit pretentious…or is it? Is there something moving through me, speaking through me, when I write from my heart? Can I shove my ego as well as my intellect out of the way? Speaking of intellect, and ego, and mind…
  • Pigeon Pose: Could writing help me become better acquainted with my own mind? The way my thoughts sometimes behave like grasshoppers on steroids? The phrases and connections and story elements I use repeatedly, without intention? The cycles of feeling I’ve written something fine, only to plummet to the certainty it’s all drek, that I can never get anything right?
  • Corpse Pose: Is writing a way of stilling my thoughts and becoming fully present–through words, are you kidding? Ah, those moments when it feels like I’m not making up these words, they’re coming from somewhere else, I’m just a lens, a focal point through which light passes.

I have no easy answers, but I will be watching myself–my self–more closely as I write. And who knows, I might even achieve a new literary Downward-Facing Dog.

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.