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!

Practice Makes Project

It’s the holiday season, or so I’m told. I have signally failed to organize present-giving this year–to the point where my husband and I were yelling “I dunno, what do YOU want?” at each other from different rooms Saturday afternoon. The one thing I have done is to make some books as gifts. This is utterly self-serving: I found a couple of bookbinding projects that I wanted to do, and thought: who would like the end project? And there you go.

I am not a bookbinder. I have very few of the tools (I do have a bone folder, which is a multi-use tool and utterly invaluable). I have ambition but no indurated skills. And yet. I work in a museum of bookbinding, I know enough to talk about the history and craft, and sometimes the urge to make something with my scanty knowledge overwhelms. And Hey!, it’s the holidays! Continue reading “Practice Makes Project”

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.

Solstice Tidings

As regular readers know, the Treehouse exists simultaneously in the United States and Australia and as such it makes an effort to celebrate astronomical phenomena in both hemispheres and on both sides of the Earth.

Since it’s already Tuesday December 22 in Australia, we’re later for the summer solstice than we are for the winter one (which occurred about 13 hours ago in North America), but we are still at the beginning of summer in the southern reaches and winter in the northern ones and still feel celebratory. So we want to  send best wishes to all of our fellow Earthlings (along with our hopes for a much improved New Year).

Happy Summer Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice

From Your friends in the Treehouse

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”

Horses in The Seven-Petaled Shield

The stories that gave rise to The Seven-Petaled Shield began with my love of horses and a special exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County of the art of the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. I marveled at the beautiful gold artifacts of the Scythians, depicting horses, elk, and snow leopards, and the lives and adventures of these people. The Greek historian Herodotus described the Scythians as “invincible and inaccessible,” and Thucydides asserted, “there is none which can make a stand against the Scythians if they all act in concert.” This world, its people, and its marvelous horses practically begged for stories to be written about them.

The Scythians were only one of many nomadic horse-faring peoples who roamed the Central Asian steppe from the beginning of the first millennium before the Common Era into the 20th Century. Sarmatians, Cimmerians, Massagetae, Alani, and many others were followed by such groups as the Hun, Kazars, Uzbeks, Bulgars, and Magyars. Although these peoples differed in culture, language, religion, and place of origin, they shared the characteristics of nomadic horse folk. They were highly mobile, superb archers, and their survival depended on their horses.


I based the Azkhantian horses on those used by these historical peoples. Typically, their horses were small and hardy, not particularly beautiful but capable of great endurance. Some sources compared them to “primitive” types like Przewalski’s Horse. As I developed the Azkhantian culture more, I delved into the literature about Mongolian horses. I wanted a breed that could withstand extremes of weather, thrive on poor food and scarce water, and able to cover great distances, equivalent to or exceeding modern endurance races. Although the 20
th Century brought many changes to Mongolia itself, I found photographic records and journals from travelers who visited this area before or shortly following World War I, when mechanized technology had made few if any inroads into the steppe. The Long Riders Press has reprinted a number of these travel journals, in particular Mongolian Adventure: 1920s Danger and Escape Among the Mounted Nomads of Central Asia. Henning Haslund’s tales of his travels through pre-industrialized Mongolia provided not only descriptions of the peoples, landscapes, animals, and traditions, but examples of the poetry and songs, the latter with staff notation. “The Horse With the Velvet Back” and “The Dear Little Golden Horse” are examples of the importance of horses in this culture.


Haslund wrote: “Most Mongolian horses are finely built, but the animals from the mountain districts often remind one of the Ardennes horses on a smaller scale. The average Mongolian horse stands barely fourteen hands, but what it can do on long journeys is unparalleled. … My new horse was … small but powerful, and had such control over his legs that he always set them with precision in the right place. If he snorted and refused to go forward, it always turned out that he was standing on the edge of a place where there was a risk of slipping.”

 

Shannivar’s favorite horse, Eriu, was modeled on Haslund’s description. Here she races her cousin, Alsanobal:

Alsanobal gave the red his head, and they raced back the way they had come. Shannivar tapped Eriu with her heels. The black gathered his hindquarters under him, then burst into a full-out gallop. The coarse hairs of his mane whipped across Shannivar’s face. She leaned over his forequarters, secretly pleased that they would have their race after all.

Eriu’s speed was like fire, like silk, as intoxicating as k’th. Even on the rough downhill footing, he never missed a step. The air itself sustained him.

By day, you are my wings, the poet sang to his favorite steed. By night, you never fail me.

They plunged downhill, caught Alsanobal on his red, and passed them. Shannivar whooped in triumph.

I based the Azkhantian horses on the Mongolian breeds, for their hardiness and endurance, their weather-sense and nimbleness. Given the extent of the inhabited steppe, it made sense to me that there would be variation among the types of horses, not just of conformation and temperament, but the same sorts of characteristics that mark the difference between breeds. I introduced two particular variations: tundra horses and gaited horses. The Tundra Horse was a strain of “primitive” horse (like Przewalski’s Horse) living in the Arctic Circle, sighted as late as the mid 1960s (in northeastern Siberia). The Yakut pony has the same geographical distribution and is able to survive extremely severe climactic conditions. So I mounted the northernmost of the Azkhantian tribes on these shaggy white horses.

I became interested in “gaited” horses through a dear friend, a lover of Tennessee Walking Horses. All horses have gaits (walk, trot, canter, gallop) but some are capable of ambling, a four-beat, extremely smooth and often rapid pattern of movement. These are genetically linked (it’s a mutation on the gene DMRT3), the way the propensity to either trot (front and hind feet move alternately) or pace (front and hind feet move together) is. When I began to research gaited breeds, I realized that the special smooth gaits were actually a group of distinct patterns, and that some version of a soft-stepping horse can be found throughout the world, from the Peruvian Paso to the Missouri Fox Trotter, the Icelandic horse, the Indian Marwari, German Aegidienberger, and Greek Messara ponies.

Just as people are not uniform in language, customs, food, or many other aspects, neither are animals  or Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus). In our own history, doubt remains whether onagers were ever domesticated, being thought too “unruly.” I thought a strong, hardy, intelligent equine – quite amenable to training, for this is a fantasy world — might provide a reasonable alternative to the horse.

The Gelon “stone-dwellers,” to the southwest of the steppe, would not use the same type of animal. Gelon was originally loosely based on the Roman Empire, with an Italian climate – much warmer and wetter than the steppe. I decided to not stick with horses, but to explore parallel agricultural evolution and use historical precedent in giving the Gelon a strong preferences for the onager.



The carving of the Mongolian horse is by Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project and licensed under Creative Commons. The photo of the grazing Mongolian horses is by Brücke-Osteuropa and is in the public domain. The image of the onager is in the public domain.

Etsy and Me, and Coffee* Makes Three!

Chaos 1-4 Tor hardcovers

Back in the day, I used to sell autographed copies of my books from my website, by way of a simple pricelist page that could be printed and mailed to me. I didn’t sell a lot, but it helped me connect with some readers. Then the web got more complicated, and sales tax got more complicated, and I gave up on that model. Now, I’m selling autographed books through Etsy! Yes, that place you go to (statistically more likely if you are female) to buy crafts and things. It turns out you can sell books there, too, and a number of authors and booksellers do just that. Now I am, too.

Here’s what I’ve got in my StarRiggerBooks store so far:

All autographed and personalized as requested. Great gift ideas, right? Come and be my customer! Or share it with a book-loving friend!

*You didn’t think I could build an Etsy store without the help of coffee, did you?

Going Out? Cover Your Snout!

Capt Jack - masked up

After all these months of wearing masks and taking proper precautions, I still have trouble remembering to put on a mask when I go out—especially if it’s something quick and routine, like taking the dogs for a walk. It’s not like I’m hiding the masks; they’re hanging right by the door. Am I the only one with this problem? I can’t be.

I decided I needed a mnemonic reminder. So now when I go out, I (try to remember to) chant to myself, “Going out? Cover your snout!”

It helps. Just like “Going out? Don’t go without!” helps me remember to take my wallet when I’m going to the store.

Neither is foolproof. I’m grateful for Google Pay on my phone, which saves me about once every few months, when I find myself at the grocery checkout, patting my pocket, and cursing softly because there’s no wallet there.

Some of us need all the help we can get, these days.

Not everybody likes it, though.

Zentao Verses for 2020

Every morning, I write a haiku-like verse with the goal of catching what’s going on in my mind at that moment. These are closer to senryu than traditional haiku, since only a few of them are about nature and they sometimes have a humorous or satirical turn.

I call these “zentao” and you can find them on Twitter with that as a hashtag. I also post them on Facebook.

I’ve been doing this since January 1, 2015, and I don’t seem to be able to stop. When I go back through them, I find that I have often said the same thing in slightly different words.

Since it’s 2020, you won’t be surprised to find that many of this year’s verses are related to the pandemic or to U.S. politics. This verse from January 9 – pre-pandemic unless you were in the know – kind of sums things up:

I feel unsettled.
The whole wide world’s unsettled.
I guess I’m in sync.

This one, from later in January, was motivated by the political mess, but it’s on point for everything that’s happened:

Our system assumes
people will act in good faith.
Our system’s broken.

Continue reading “Zentao Verses for 2020”