January 20, 2021

U.S. flagThe National Anthem made me cry.

Specifically, when Lady Gaga sang “that our flag was still there,” I cried, because it reminded me that our country is still here. Battered and bruised and all too aware of its many shortcomings, but still here.

We’ve got another chance to help our country develop into the place it ought to be now that it’s been rescued from the narcissistic criminal who occupied our White House for the last four years.

I’m not really a fan of the flag – the performative patriotism of flag-waving has always repelled me – nor do I usually react to the National Anthem. I know it well and always sing along when I’m in a public gathering.

It’s a matter of respect, of duty as a citizen. (I am, in fact, often appalled at how few people sing it, even at political conventions.)

But it doesn’t usually move me any more than the flag does. I’d prefer a song that wasn’t focused on bombs and war, not to mention one that recognizes all of the people in this country including those who were here long before European settlers set foot on our soil as well as those brought here in chains, not to mention all the immigrants from all the other places who have made us strong.

Still, metaphors work and last Wednesday the flag as a metaphor for our country surviving the last four years did wonders. Continue reading “January 20, 2021”

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

What’s In Your Pocket?

When I was making the sketchbook for my brother I recalled, as I hadn’t in years, that my father always carried four or five 3 x 5 file cards in his breast pocket–unlined, often in an assortment of colors–with his fountain pen, available for quick sketches or notes. In the way of kids, I assumed that all fathers carried file cards and a fountain pen with them in case inspiration struck. I’m not even sure when I realized that this was not so.

My father also carried a Swiss Army knife. Not one of those 20-blade knuckledusters, but a plain six-blade knife that was employed all around the house and all around the Barn (my parents’ colorful converted-barn dwelling in the Berkshire hills) for a variety of uses–tightening screws, opening bottles, widening belt holes. But most particularly for slicing apples. The front “yard” at the Barn was an orchard of old apple trees (okay, with two Bosc pears and a two peach-tree-come-latelys which were annually nibbled by the deer before they could produce fruit). Continue reading “What’s In Your Pocket?”

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

I’m in the middle of summer and, no matter how much work I do, some escapes me. This is not such a bad thing as long as I don’t miss my deadlines. Summer is a time for meandering, however, so I’m guilty of detours.

Deadlines can be horrid things, but this week they all include cool stuff. One set of deadlines includes its own intrinsic meander. The book I need to finish re-reading today, for example, is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. It’s an early (1984) foray into French cultural history. Darnton is one of my favourite cultural historians and French history is very much part of my historical background. He talks about sermon literature as sources and how there was a wildly huge collection of French peasant fairy tales for about 50 years in the 18th to 19th centuries.

I’m reading Darnton’s study because I need to be more grounded in the way I interpret fairy tales and also because my life needs more safe places. The re-reading began, however, as a reminder to myself that even the best scholars are capable of filling into stuff they can’t find out about with explanations that are fun but not reliable.

Right now I’m making a mental list of sources Darnton refers to and one of those he doesn’t even think of adding in. He includes collected stories by peasants and traces the relationship between French literary fairy tales and those later popular ones. He doesn’t talk enough about chapbooks and broadsides and forbidden books as sources for popular literature here, however (he does elsewhere). He also leaves the Maase Book and the whole realm of Jewish women’s literature and other equivalent narratives by Jews out of his overview.

It’s as if a society only contains one religion. I need to remember that I only really understand Jewish and Christian Europe and that I myself have to explore beyond my boundaries. Other scholars skip Jewish culture, but they also skip gendered culture. Jack Zipes is my go-to author for gender in fairy tales, however, not Darnton.

I am a person who looks at their own intellectual path and questions it. That’s why I need to finish the Darnton book. Darnton and Greg Dening and Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie and Claude Levi-Strauss started me on this journey, decades ago. Right now I’m discovering that every single scholar who questions stuff still accepts a truckload of cultural values and assumptions.

We all privilege culture. Even those of us who are working hard to break down that privilege and to understand what comes from where and why. I need to understand how I’ve been influenced.

This is not for my fiction. Or maybe not only for my fiction. It’s my research side. It’s going to affect my fiction. I can already see changes in how I think about my own writing.

I was thinking, the other day, that I need to write a novel that looks at how a person create safe spaces for themselves and uses those safe spaces to get through impossible times.

What I’m doing right now is saying, “We all create safe spaces. Even intellectually, we are more contented in safe spaces.” I can’t write this novel until I understand how my favourite scholars create the safe spaces for their ground-breaking work. Why is it safe to talk about this subject or that? Why can one talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture and skip straight to the 18th century?

All this sounds theoretical. When I write something on the academic side, it is. It has some extraordinary practical applications, however. I’m applying the theory to fairy stories and folk tales right now, for that’s what my research is in, but last time I did this same type of questioning, I applied it to my cooking. I worked out that I only use a small part of my kitchen for actual cooking. The rest of it helps reassure me I can cook, or it gives me the stories of my past cooking. Anything that doesn’t fit my kitchen is hidden or not there at all. You could understand a lot about my cultural background and my financial position and even my friendships by exploring my pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Sweet foods are rare, pork and its equivalents are non-existent. Since the bushfires were followed by the pandemic, I’m set up so that if I can’t shop for a month I will still eat healthily. All of this and more is there for anyone who cares to look.

In short, the way my kitchen is set up makes it comfortable for me to cook, now, when life is a bit difficult. The way any book is set up tells me what the writer finds comfortable and helps me understand what the limits of their research are. Understanding those limits means I can push my own scholarship in ways I never will do with my cooking. It also means I understand the choices I myself make.

My New Year’s resolution is to create more safe spaces for myself, so that I can grow despite the dangers the external world shoves in my face. This style of reading is step one in that resolution. I’m not the kind of person who walks out boldly. I’m the kind of person who lays a path and walks it with others. I begin with reading books by experts and dissecting those books.

This particular path is a very fine one to walk. If anyone wants to walk it with me, you’re welcome.

Resolution.

Happy New Year

 

I say those words with some trepidation. On the one hand, I join those who are thrilled to see the end of 2020. On the other, if the last year has taught me anything it is to be wary about what happens next.

Still, I have things to look forward to. For the Good of the Realm, the novel that I sold just before our lives got upended, will be coming out at the end of May from Aqueduct Press. And my sweetheart and I have begun to think about making some travel plans for later in the year.

It’s possible that with the vaccine and some decent leadership at the federal level in the United States the pandemic will wither away. Given what we have learned over the past few years, and especially the past ten months, about the frailties of our country, I hope we will build on this destructive period to create a better one.

I’m not holding my breath, though. The problems we must deal with are much deeper than I used to think. Continue reading “Resolution.”

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 were — or 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.

A huge piece of the problem, in my experience, is that we are inundated with role models of gossipers. We are told overtly and covertly that it is not only acceptable but enjoyable to speak ill of others and to relish their misfortune. If they have no discernible misfortune to begin with — well then, we will create some! If media portray the pain of those who are gossiped about, it is often to glorify retaliation in kind. Almost never are we taught what to do when we speak badly. Saying “I’m sorry,” or “Shake hands and make up,” (as we’re forced to do as small children) does not make amends.

Certainly, we must begin by looking fearlessly at what we have done or said (or left undone and unsaid), but we must also be willing to accept that there is no justification for our behavior. It doesn’t matter if what we said was true or not if it harmed someone. It doesn’t matter if we were hurting or grieving or too Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired.

What we have done does not make us unworthy, unlovable, inadequate, or anything except wrong. Good people can be wrong. Good people, when wrong, strive to make things right.

When we do this, we strengthen not only our relationships and our communities, but our own ability to choose better next time. As we have compassion for others, we owe ourselves compassion — not excuses, not defenders, not “who’s on my side,” but gentle understanding, encouragement, patience, and courage.

Everyone Hold Hands, All Together Now

Is it the last Friday of the month already?  Shit. It is.  The holiday season is in full stride, Hanukah in the rear view window, Christmas heading out the back door, and Kwanzaa upon us, and yep, there’s New Year’s Eve waving from the end of the driveway.

It’s inevitable that in this Year of Covid, we’ve been looking toward, if not anxiously anticipating, New Year’s Eve.  And, more specifically, New Year’s Day.  Goodbye 2020, PLEASE let the door hit you on the way out, hello, 2021.

God knows, that’s true for me:  2020 began, literally, with a call to tell me that my mother had died, and is ending as I recover from a concussion.  In-between…well, we know what happened in-between, worldwide and locally.  A few bright spots, a few not-inconsiderable wins, but overall… yeah.  And the veil of plausible deniability was pulled away from the arrogantly deadly stupidity of too many people, some of them people we respected, trusted, or loved. We’re going to be cleaning up after this year for a long time.  So it’s entirely reasonable and expected for people to start with the year-end chants of, “next year is gonna be better.”

And I cringe, as I do ever time I hear it.  Not because I think we’re jinxing ourselves, although, that, yeah.  But because if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that what’s coming doesn’t HAVE to be better. And it won’t be, in and of itself. The universe bends toward the least amount of effort, and it takes effort for good things to happen (don’t ask me Why, that leads to theological and thermodynamical questions I don’t have the stamina for, because 2020).

But I do believe that we need to be optimistic.  First and foremost because if we don’t have the belief that there is better coming, the urge to stay in bed and let other people deal with shit becomes overwhelming, until we’re all in bed and nobody actually is dealing with shit (or, if they are, they’re not the people you want left in charge of anything, see: 2020).  But secondly and just as importantly, because it’s been my observation that sustained effort is driven by equal parts optimism and irritation, the kind of attitude that doesn’t say “it will magically get better” but rather “fuck you, universe, I’m going to make it better.”

This year – every year –  be punk-ass optimistic.  Be annoyingly punk-ass optimistic, because nothing annoys naysayers and doomfuckers like optimism.  But… maybe this year we don’t shout it from the rooftops.  Keep it quiet in your breast, and warm in your hands, and hidden from Fate.  Or, as a caution appeared in my social media scroll this week:Nobody claim 2021 as "your year." We're all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Don't. Touch. Anything.

Everyone, hold hands (virtually, for now) and on the count of three, step forward.

Oh yeah – and Happy New Year!

Meanderings: parties and work and dealing with life

I’m sorry I’m a bit late with this fortnight’s post. By ‘a bit’ I mean it’s the right day in the US and a day later in Australia.

I’ve been working on two big things (more about them in a moment) and also discovering that the social life this season is a bit bigger than I expected. Every other year I am excluded from most social events, due to being from the wrong background, not being able to drive, not having children: the usual. I get just enough friends in my life for two weeks so that I know I exist.

This year, everyone else has movement restrictions and we’re meeting online and.. there are still events I don’t get invited to, because people forget that I can come, but every day (every single day) there are other events.

I appreciate this so very much that a friend is setting me up a meeting place on 25 December (that’s 24 December in the US, for I am UTC+11) so that I can return the favour and any friend who is alone that day can drop in and we can chat. It’s only a few hours, for that’s a work day for me, but it’s happening.

I have one thing to finish before then. In fact, I need to finish it today. The other thing is ongoing. Two friends and I are designing a world for gaming and for writing in. One friend is an artist, the other is a writer with military background and me, I’m an ethnohistorian when I’m not a writer. The ethnohistory is the thing: our cultures hold together and are sexy and we all want to venture into this world we’re creating. My current role is to work out how our fairy tales would work in these countries. I’ve already done a Cinderella. There is no handsome prince in this one: Cinders has to find her own way out using her specific background. This Cinders bears grudges…

The other thing (‘thing’ is a technical word for me, which is my only excuse for overusing it, and it’s a very bad excuse) is my non-fiction. The book I finished in winter is being thoroughly edited in summer. This book makes a lot more sense now, and I’m not unhappy with it.

Today I’ll be finishing it and then it wends its way and I shall worry for its journey. Publication takes forever, and even an interested publisher may not want a book, when they read it again.

I love telling people what this book is about. I’m looking at how science fiction and fantasy novels communicate culture and operate as cultural objects. I’ve developed a bunch of tools for the analysis and those tools are so handy that the talk I gave about a few of them at this year’s European Science Fiction Convention had people chasing me to get the talk published. I needed a home for it that was a place these same readers knew, but the editors were slow to answer (or, in one case, has just let it slide without even an acknowledgement) so I’ve had to give up looking. At least one of my regular publishers was willing to help, but I need to be careful how I overlap my academic self and my fictional self. Unless I hear back from the silent publisher (which has a history of not answering emails from me, so I wouldn’t hold my breath) everyone can wait for the book.

With essays in general and with short stories, I won’t chase beyond a certain point, because if I do, then I won’t have time to write anything else. I’m not alone in this, but my disabilities/chronic health problems do have an effect on my time and energy. If I want to see any of my work in print, I assess it for how much time and energy it will take to get it there.

This applies to most aspects of my life. If I don’t have a copy of a book of mine, for example, or a bookshop has said they want me to visit and I have not turned up, it’s because I’ve chased it a certain number of times and can’t chase it any more without it eating into core things. ‘Eating into core things’ means physical pain which affects absolutely everything.

When people chase me up or answer emails or fill all their promises without reminders, my life is better. It’s the work equivalent of those end of year/Christmas/other parties I have to miss most years.

This wasn’t really a post about parties or the work I’m doing. I wanted to show you how I balance my particular physical limitations. The other thing that delayed me yesterday, you see, was a visit to the hospital, where I found out why typing hurts so much when I do the hard yards of reminding everything of all the things they forget.

Every single one of us is balancing a lot of things this year. We all have to put our needs and other peoples’ needs into some kind of order to get as much done as possible. And me, I need to remind myself that I can share the joy with an online party, but when a delivery doesn’t come because someone has slipped up or if emails have not been answered, I am not always capable of being the responsible soul who chases everything for everybody and keeps whole communities of work together.

We all have to prioritise this season. I’m using that need to find ways of handling the impossible workload writers often have. In all the lists I have, reminders are, oddly, the hardest to handle. Everyone with illness/disability is different. I’m lucky I can still write books and design worlds and research. Very, very lucky. Where I need support, it turns out, is getting them out into the world.

My lesson of the week (for I’m in learning mode, being a student again) is to apply this same equation to everyone around me and to let things go when I can’t solve problems. I get told “You should’ve reminded me” or “I thought I did that” or “Oops – maybe next week” and every time, it creates physical hurt for me, and I want to be angry at the person who causes the pain. My resolution is to get through this more lightly than I have. I need less pain and less judgement and more understanding. And I need to work out for every person around me what difficult decisions they’ve had to make in this difficult time and give them the space they need to deal with it. Until now, I’d be the one helping them get through. I’d take on work for them and sacrifice.

Sacrifices are more difficult now and parties are easier.

I need to return to my book and to stop letting my thoughts become complicated. Or maybe I need coffee.

If you want to find me on 25 December, let me know and I’ll share the link when it goes live.

On Talent and the Physical

I used to believe that only people born with natural talent could do physical things. And I knew I wasn’t talented.

When I was five, the doctor recommended ballet classes because I had problems with my ankles. Ballet isn’t a particularly good exercise for weak ankles, but it was one of the few physical classes available for girls back then.

My teacher put me in toe shoes. Clearly she didn’t know anything about strengthening ankles. Toe shoes probably made my ankles worse.

I don’t remember much about those classes, but I came away knowing I wasn’t talented.

I was always one of the tall kids, so I figured I could play basketball (even if my parents thought it was silly). The PE teacher told us that anyone who could run a mile around the track could play basketball, so I did it, only to discover that the test only applied to sixth graders. After that, I went to a school that didn’t have basketball for girls. I used to shoot layups before PE class, trying to get good just because I wanted to be good.

But despite that, PE class informed me that I wasn’t talented. I got picked last for teams. I could never get the volleyball over the net. Or the tennis ball, though I liked tennis.

I could ride a horse, though I never rode as much as my sister. I used a bicycle to get into town until I got a driver’s license. Mostly I spent my time curled up with a book. I was “smart,” not physical.

The first chink in my wall of belief came from watching The Avengers. Not the superhero movies, but the clever British spy spoof TV series from the 60s. Mrs. Peel, as played by the late Diana Rigg, was an awesome fighter because she had trained in martial arts.

A seed was planted in the back of my mind: Learn martial arts and you won’t be at risk from men.

Of course, martial arts was physical and I was untalented, but the idea remained.

Yes, stories matter, even high camp sixties TV.  Continue reading “On Talent and the Physical”

Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing “heatwave.”

Summer is here and we’re in what I like to call ‘silly season.’ Other people dignify it with more worthy names, but other people have already had Thanksgiving. Australia doesn’t do Thanksgiving, and we’re already a bit daft so… “silly season.” I’m not the only one to call December and early January by this name. I am, however, one of the most consistent.

I’m sending out short stories (three of us have joined together in this) to Australian addresses this Friday. Three writers sending out short stories to interested readers is a good thing to do in a fraught year. Also, me, I have Chanukah, so extra treats might creep into some envelopes.

Chanukah starts very soon, so I had to sort out what I was going to do this year rather early. I’m sending a very few envelopes overseas for it. Instead of doing a public call-out, I decided to surprise a few people. Those envelopes are gone. They contain nothing useful and nothing valuable. They are, however, fun.

I’ll be going to the post office again on Thursday. I’m not supposed to do messages. No-one can get blood samples for me (their blood is not my blood), however, so I’ll do the post office/library/bank/chicken run after I’ve done the bloodwork. That will take a half day and it will solve many problems.

I will wear a mask at critical times. I have very pretty masks and need to show them off (thanks, Pati!).

This means that I can send three more envelopes to less unsuspecting parties anywhere in the world. The first three people to get me their addresses (no later than Wednesday morning your time) will receive something small to remind you there’s a world out there and that you deserve time out. And stickers. This year we all deserve stickers.

For local friends, I have bowls filled with goodies. Local friends get the best of the daft presents, because they have to come and pick them up. The bowls will lurk on my letterbox, for as short a time as possible because it is warm. By ‘warm’, I mean, of course, ‘quite uncomfortable and this weather is intolerable and why is it doing this to us?’

Summer is here. We have our first bushfires to prove it. One of my friends can smell the smoke from Fraser Island. Another put up the special shutters and promptly lost electricity to the first fire of the season in the Blue Mountains. This is normal… but normal doesn’t mean nice in any way.

The return of bushfire season coincided with the US Black Friday sales. Some really-not-very-bright Australian retailers have announced ‘Black Friday’ as a sale here, too. ‘Black Friday’ in Australia normally refers to the 1939 fires and reminds us of the 2019/20 fires and a lot of Australians are annoyed at quite a few retailers. The sales are nearly done and they’ve put a blight into the shopping of those whose silly season includes 25 December.

Me, I already have all kinds of presents for all kinds of people for all kinds of seasons. The moment I earned enough money to live on, I bought books for me and presents for everyone else. I’m all shopped out. This means I can spend the next few weeks doing relaxed things while others panic, doesn’t it?

Not quite. I’m several weeks into my PhD and have a structure for it and have met all my early milestones. This means I have forty books and over two hundred articles to read before 6 January. My silly season is splendidly different to most others’, and this year I plan to enjoy the heck out of it.