Saturday, December 30, 2006

Twisting Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

Dubya Says . . .

Before: "My name is Inigo Bushoya. You tried to kill my father. Prepare to die."

After: "Daddy, Daddy! Now you have to love me best!"

The execution of Saddam Hussein occurred on Eid ul-Adha, the culmination of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. This holy day is
also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Choosing to execute Hussein on this date of all days in the calendar is comparable in foresightedness with the Romans executing that crazy rabble-rouser Yeshua bar Joseph at Passover. Just asking for trouble, and of a very specific kind: creating martyrs to inspire further rebellions and uprisings.[1]

We've done enormous damage in Iraq. The number of civilians killed by direct military action is over 50,000. We've lost just about 3,000 soldiers, with a minimum of seven times as many as that being wounded. (Some estimates of wounded American soldiers give the ration as 33 wounded for every 1 killed.)

There's evidence that the CIA helped the Baathist Party -- Saddam's party -- to reach power in a 1963 coup designed to protect our oil interests. That's an unjustified act of war.

There is no evidence, and I mean none, that the weapons of mass destruction ever existed or that Iraq helped the suicide bombers who wreaked such destruction on 9/11. That's another unjustified act of war.

In the aftermath of the international crimes against humanity of 2001 we have tortured, we have murdered, we have brutalised and killed the innocent - we have even added our shame at Abu Ghraib to Saddam's shame at Abu Ghraib - and yet we are supposed to forget these terrible crimes as we applaud the swinging corpse of the dictator we created.

Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls? And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbad any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him. Could he not have been handed over to the Iranians for sentencing for this massive war crime? Of course not. Because that would also expose our culpability.

And the mass killings we perpetrated in 2003 with our depleted uranium shells and our "bunker buster" bombs and our phosphorous, the murderous post-invasion sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, the hell-disaster of anarchy we unleashed on the Iraqi population in the aftermath of our "victory" - our "mission accomplished" - who will be found guilty of this?

[1] Yes, I worship that rabble-rouser as God incarnate. Nevertheless, from a purely political point of view, Herod and Pilate made a poor decision.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Driveby Moments, California Style

I wouldn't say that Northern Californians are blase, but they take certain kinds of geekiness for granted. Nobody looks twice at unusual people.

Like the handsomely dressed lawyer with the $400 briefcase waiting to cross the street to the courthouse who pressed the "Walk" button with a flawless karate kick.

Or the stocky gentleman in the Hayward BART station who was wearing a horned metal Viking helmet. Maybe because he was wearing iPod earphones beneath it.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Annual Christmas Poem

The Journey of the Magi

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death."

--T. S. Eliot

This Christmas, several friends of mine are mourning recent losses or awaiting the expected passing of friends or family. Christmas can be a cruel time for the grieving. But even in this midwinter gloom, when the journey seems pointless, when pain and despair tarnish the bright tinsel and tears silence the carols in the throat, there is the promise of the Christ Child. Not just a God reaching down from an infinite remove, but the Word embodied, sharing our pain, loving us from inside. The Divine, with us every step of the way.

There's an Episcopalian evening prayer I particularly love, and I pray it for you, my readers, tonight:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

May the infinite compassion of Jesus enfold you in love and care this day and all the days of your life.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I’ll Be Quaked for Christmas

Over the past few days, there have been half a dozen earthquakes on the same spot under the University of California at Berkeley. (Note to trivia buffs: in the Bay Area, “Berkeley” means the city; the university is referred to as “Cal.” The Berkeley campus is the flagship of the whole system.) The smallest tremors were barely perceptible microquakes—1.6 on the Richter scale. The biggest were in the 3.5 to 3.7 range—big enough to feel, small enough to do no damage.

Earthquakes this tiny happen all the time, but there’s something a touch disturbing about the repeated hammering on one spot. Seismologists dismiss worries that the cluster of temblors is a precursor to the big one.

“We think we have a small patch of the fault which is having a creep episode,” Oppenheimer said. “Does it mean a big one is coming? There's a slightly enhanced probability that this could be a foreshock, but it's a very low probability.”

I’m spending Christmas day a couple of miles from the epicenter. Given that some of the most devastating earthquakes have happened on religious holidays—the 1964 Alaska earthquake (magnitude 9.2, third largest earthquake ever recorded) on Good Friday; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on Easter Sunday, the magnitude 9.3 2004 earthquake and tsunami on Boxing Day—I won’t be at all surprised if the Hayward Fault chooses Christmas as the day to cut loose.

Apparently Mother Earth gets overstressed by the holidays, just like the rest of us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Quote of the Day
Come to think of it I don't know that love has a point, which is what makes it so glorious. Sex has a point, in terms of relief and, sometimes, procreation, but love, like all art, as Oscar said, is quite useless. It is the useless things that make life worth living and that make life dangerous too: wine, love, art, beauty. Without them life is safe, but not worth bothering with.

--Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Change a Child’s Life

Books have always been a refuge for me. In the most difficult times of my childhood, I could escape by immersing myself in books, which also taught me better ways to behave than I could have learned from my family. Most children who survive abusive childhoods have one adult who takes an interest; I had books. It’s not too much to say they saved my life.

If any kids need books and stories, it’s poor children—the ones who are least likely to have any available. No books at home. Not enough books at school. No nearby libraries.

For the almost 12 million children living below the poverty level in the United States today, growing up with books of their own is a dream rather than a reality. More than 60% of low-income families have no books at all at home for their children. Over 80% of programs serving children in need have no age-appropriate books or other print materials.

First Book gives poor children a book of their very own to love, read, and cherish. A book that may open the doors of learning. A book that can foster creativity. A book that says, “You matter.”

First Book has distributed more than 40 million new books to children from low-income families across the United States.

The results are remarkable: More than half of the children — 55% — reported having an increased interest in reading. Additionally, the number of young people demonstrating a "high interest in reading" nearly tripled (increasing from 23% to 61%) after receiving books from First Book.

Donate now. Free a child’s mind. Give the gift of imagination. Give books.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Weird Crimes #117

While I was away for the weekend, someone broke into my truck and left me two light bulbs.

Well, “broke into” may not be quite fair. It was unlocked, as usual; there is no radio and nothing to steal, and it’s quite safe in my assigned spot in the covered parking area. In addition to leaving two small light bulbs (one amber and one clear), they moved an empty soda cup.

They also left the passenger-side door not quite latched—which would have annoyed me greatly, if the truck had a ceiling light, since the battery could well have been dead when I got home. But it doesn’t, and it wasn’t, and I am left wondering how and why they bothered with that door. I park quite close to the wall, and no normally sized human could have gotten in or out that way.

Have I been visited by the Light Bulb Fairy?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

In the Shadow of the Breakers

It’s easy to know when you’re in coal country. The highways slice right through the hills, exposing the telltale black beds of anthracite or bituminous coal. Most of the village houses are company-built: narrow row houses crammed together on streets as steep as the famous ones of San Francisco. The streets that run parallel to the ridge are broader, lined with trees, and flanked by bigger houses where supervisors and other professionals live. The bosses’ grand houses are always to the west—upwind of the engine house, pump house, and the “patch” where miners lived.

Patches were built in the shadow of the breakers, gaunt windowless buildings that have the look of prisons. In the breakers, twelve-year-olds sorted coal from lower-carbon rock. Next to the breakers grew a mountain of waste—known in Wales as a tip, in my part of Pennsylvania as a slag heap or culm bank. Although slag is not as clean-burning as coal, it can catch fire; I’ve lived near places where old slag heaps have been burning for decades.

Forty years ago today, the tip above the town of Aberfan, Wales, gave way. Tons of waste made slick with water (the tip was located on a spring) roared downhill, through a small farm, and into the school where the miners’ children were studying.

One hundred sixteen children died. Twenty-eight adults, five of them teachers, also died.

The women were already there, like stone they were, clawing at the filth – it was like a black river – some had no skin left on their hands. Miners are a tough breed, we don’t show our feelings, but some of the lads broke down.

Remember the children of Aberfan. I was seven when they died; most of the dead were between seven and ten years old. They died for corporate greed and government indifference; the mine at Aberfan had been nationalized, but the British National Coal Board was still less concerned with safety than with productivity.

According to the official report,
The Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.

In people who bear great responsibilities, ignorance and complacency and the refusal to listen can cause terrible tragedies—and, in my opinion, make them just as culpable as if they acted with willful malice.

ETA. Another miner died in an underground accident today. That makes 42 for the year. This one's in Tremont, Schuykill County, PA.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Helping the Amish Community

The murder of the little Amish girls has caused me a great deal of grief and anger and helplessness. This morning, a friend let me know there was something practical I could do to help.

The Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Central Committee are accepting donations to help the Amish community that suffered in the recent schoolhouse shooting. The survivors of the shooting will be amassing huge hospital bills and their families will require costly transportation to and from the hospitals for a long time.

One thing you may not know about Amish folk is that they generally eschew health insurance. Without doubt, this community will cover and support their wounded family members; this is what they do because they see it as an extension of their faith in Christ to live in community.

We have an opportunity to join the community and help in their healing. Take part if you can.

Donate here.(They accept Visa and Mastercard, and it's tax-deductible.)

I grew up near a Mennonite Church, and my sister Libby graduated from a Mennonite college. I can absolutely guarantee that the money will be used wisely. Moreover, the site is genuine.

Moreover, two funds have been set up by the Old Order Amish community to accept donations. One is the Nickel Mines Children's Fund. The other is the Roberts Family Fund, for the Children of the Roberts Family.

The Roberts Family is the family of the gunman.

I think that speaks volumes about what kind of people the Amish are.

Donations to both funds can be sent to:
Coatesville Savings Bank,
1082 Georgetown Road,
Paradise PA 17562

Gift cards, teddy bears and other material, non-cash donations, gifts or condolences should be taken or mailed to:
Georgetown United Methodist Church,
1070 Georgetown Road,
Paradise PA 17562

Amish Elders will pick up the items there and distribute them to the families.

The Amish have also suggested several other ways to help.

You may prefer to channel your giving through other charities or toward other causes. But if you have been looking for a way to help, these are some practical things you can do.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Bill of Rights

I realize these are radical ideas, but they're worth considering. We'd have to get rid of Gitmo -- either charge those inmates and try them, or let them go. We certainly would have to toss the "detainee" bill. The one that permits torture. Or does torture cease to be cruel and unusual punishment when it's ratified 65 to 34?

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

It's too early to declare the end of the War on Terror.

Terror won this battle. But Liberty is going to win the war. I pledge my blood, tears, toil, and sweat to this. I'll write, speak, work to change this regime. If I have to go to jail, I will. Because this is not the way I want my country to behave.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

In Memoriam

Almost a year ago, I urged people to sign up as organ donors. That was the day my friend Stephanie was given new life.

Now many of us are mourning the death of poet and author Mike Ford, who got almost six extra years of life from his kidney transplant. His partner Elise has suggested something to do in memory of Mike (John M. Ford): sign your organ donor card!

I can't improve on what she's said. Not with these tears in my eyes.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

(In)Visible (Wo)Man

A few weeks ago, Julie Phillips published James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

Last week I spotted Richard Ellmann scouting the MLA conference for penniless, amoral grad students who might be willing to swap a hit for a really good letter of recommendation.

Just kidding: he’s been dead for almost 20 years. Nevertheless, the premiere literary biographer of our day has a serious rival. His specialty was bringing difficult figures to luminous life on the page. Julie Phillips has done the same for a character who seems too far-fetched to be real: the blonde Chicago debutante who became a chicken farmer, the first white child to trek through the Congo who grew up to be a suicidally depressed devotee of Dexedrine, the Army major and CIA analyst who was also a gifted artist, the battered teenage bride who earned a PhD in psychology, the reclusive male SF writer who turned out to be a middle-aged housewife in McLean, VA.

It would be easy for a biographer to get lost among the many masks of Alice B. Sheldon, or to be dazzled into idolatry by her flashing surfaces. Or, most likely, to choose one mask, one surface, as the Real or True or Important one, relegating the others to obscurity. Phillips never makes this mistake: she deals fairly with all the faces she mentions, and she examines the interplay of masks, emotions, gender identity, sexuality, and behavior with genuine insight.

Alice Bradley’s parents were characters straight out of a 1920s film: dashing socialites who were also daring explorers. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a superb raconteuse, expert markswoman, noted beauty, and very successful writer of both popular fiction and travel/adventure books. (I wonder if this book will bring her writing back into fashion.) Alice’s father was a prosperous lawyer and a naturalist.

Their expeditions took them through Africa and India, mostly on foot, and they brought their small daughter Alice along. Generally 6-year-old Alice was carried in a litter; she learned early to say, “Put me down!” in a number of local languages. Less excusably, Mary used her daughter as a central figure in two books about their safaris. (Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland, which young Alice herself illustrated.)

Alice’s experience of those early travels included helplessness in the face of constant danger (she alone of the party had no gun) and unspeakable terror at the death she saw all around her. In contrast, she was treated with wonder by the Africans, who had never seen a white child before, much less an adorable blonde Shirley Temple, and with patronizing affection by the various white dignitaries who entertained the explorers whenever they reached a city. (Yes, they packed plenty of evening clothes for these festivities. This was before the days of excess baggage charges.)

That disconnect between how Alice experienced the world and how others saw her role would have been difficult enough, but her parents subscribed to the Victorian ideal of presenting a tough and cheerful front in any adversity. Alice could not share or show her feelings, and it apparently never occurred to her parents that she might be frightened or disturbed.

Back in Chicago, Alice grew up to be a debutante so impatient with the process that she eloped five days after her presentation to society. She and her husband (an aspiring novelist) moved to Berkeley, where she worked seriously at painting until the marriage crashed and burned. After World War II started; she joined the WAACs, traveled, used her administrative talents, and became one of the first photointelligence analysts. She also met Huntington “Ting” Sheldon, a divorced father of three a dozen years older than herself, whom she married.

The couple spent four years raising chickens, then joined the CIA. Alice, now called Alli, was still restless. She became increasingly fascinated by visual psychology and after several years went back to school, earning a PhD with her research into the psychological appeal of novelty and familiarity. But teaching drained her, and research funds were hard to get. She’d hit another dead end.

Then she turned into a man.

James Tiptree, Jr., was born of a jar of Tiptree’s jam and Alli’s obsessive need for camouflage. Already a published writer (she’d had a story in the New Yorker, no less), now Alli was writing something light and playful: science fiction. She didn’t have to take it seriously, and she had a male identity that would allow her to simultaneously mask and reveal her real self.

Becoming Tip allowed her to say things women were not permitted to say—everything from potty humor to bleak, despairing visions of death. It gave her authority and camaraderie and respect, all in short supply for women in the 1960s. And it allowed her to express her long-burning, long-frustrated desire for women.

The masquerade went well beyond just publishing stories; she kept up lengthy and intimate correspondence with other SF writers and fans, all the while speaking as a man. Yet she told the truth in almost every other way—drew on her own biography, for example, to create Tiptree's life and interests. For most of ten years she managed to maintain the illusion.

Tiptree wrote a series of blistering short stories that won SF’s highest awards. He was lauded as a rare male feminist. But eventually the disguise became a burden. After creating a female alter ego (Raccoona Sheldon, a pleasantly dotty retired schoolteacher to whom she assigned a family-fettered life in Wisconsin), Alli was still dissatisfied.

Then her seriously ailing mother, now well into her nineties, died in Chicago. The obituaries made it easy to link the reclusive SF writer whose mother had been a writer/explorer with the lone listed survivor. Tip’s secret, Alli’s secret was out.

After that, writing became more and more difficult for Alli, although the weight of awards and being taken seriously had dragged at her for a while. As she and Ting grew older, frailer, her depressions continued. He had agreed to a suicide pact when they couldn’t go on. One night in May 1987 Alli decided it was time for them to go: he was blind, she was despairing, and the suicide note had been waiting for almost eight years.

She called friends to let them know her plans, but the police arrived before she could do anything. She must have been a hell of an actress, because she persuaded them to leave. Ting (apparently) went to sleep. She shot him in the head.

Then she called his son to tell him the news.

As the police scrambled to return, Alli wrapped a towel around her own head (she’d been bothered by the messiness of Ting’s death), lay down next to her husband, took his hand, and shot herself dead.

In the face of the rage, pain, and glory of her life, questions seem inadequate. The biography does an impressive job discussing the larger issues of gender and persona. Over the next few weeks, I’ll probably tackle some of the issues that strike me personally: the multiple pseudonyms, the writing issues, the fascination with pain, and the idea of suicide.

Alli Sheldon was the only other person I’ve heard of who kept suicide in mind as a guarantee against helplessness. If I am always free to kill myself, life’s suffering is consensual, optional. I can never be trapped. I may need to rethink that strategy, lest I end up eating a shotgun in 25 or 30 years.

Everyone should read this book. I don’t mean “all SF fans” or “all readers” or “all people who think about gender.” Everybody. This biography is that good.

Friday, August 25, 2006


You don't need a woman. You need a RealDoll and a Roomba.

Best regards,

Lynn Alden Kendall

Tags: , , ,

Monday, August 21, 2006

Moving Gratitudes

My thanks to the following people who made my move such an interesting experience:

The Califamily, who loved me and stood by me throughout the long process of finding my own place, packing, and moving. This is especially generous and wonderful of them, since none of them actually wanted me to live somewhere else—but they love me enough to want what’s best for me, weird as it may be. All the birthday gifts they gave me were perfect for the new place, and that means more than I can say. You’re still my *real* family, no matter where I live. And I’ll be back to hang out, watch movies, and be human.

(Also to clean the studio. And definitely to get Gabriel.)

Furthermore, Sonja (with her customary hard work and planning ability) arranged and cleared the best path for the movers to use, and Michele made boxes and helped me pack. Both of them helped on a day when they could have been relaxing. Thank you.

Debbie gave me a couple of guys with strong arms, and Alan provided music to keep me packing. I am also very grateful to them for a hot shower, sleeping space, and Alan’s house gift of homemade challah, which fed me when I was hungry. You’re family, too, and you know it.

Gabriel, who endured the disruption to her cherished stability, and who knew exactly what it meant, too. My sweet kitty, you kept coming to me for petting and reassurance. And yes, I’m coming back for you.

Robert Gair, the man who invented the corrugated cardboard box.

The computer reservation system at U-Haul, which interpreted my request to pick up the truck Saturday night for a Sunday move as a desire to get a truck at 11:30 AM Saturday and return it at 5:30 PM Saturday.

The customer service representative at U-Haul, who politely apologized and corrected the error, so that now I was scheduled to pick up the truck the evening of August 18 and return it the evening of August 19.

My heroic new cell phone, which spent a lonely, sleepless weekend on guard in my cubicle at work, making sure that I would not be distracted by pesky phone messages from my friends, the movers, and the people at U-Haul who kept calling Saturday morning, August 19, because I hadn’t shown up to claim my truck.

My old cell phone, which nobly refrained from its trick of turning itself completely off every time I pick it up, despite doing heavy duty as my sole contact with the rest of the world.

The genuinely helpful U-Haul local staff, who got me a truck Sunday morning despite the mix-up in the reservations.

The guys with the strong arms who uncomplainingly hauled everything. They did an amazing job, and I am grateful.

My new landlord, who installed a desirable new carpet and sink cabinet, but (on my request) did not replace the beautiful wooden slab doors with white plastic faux-paneled ones.

The previous tenant, who left me an entire drawerful of Knorr and McCormick seasoning mixes, not one of which is Lynn-safe. Anybody want them? They’ll be Freecycled if nobody speaks up.

Freecycle, which will help me match the things I don’t need any more with some people who would love to have them. And which brought me, the morning of the move, a gorgeous oak sideboard and kitchen hutch to provide the essential storage not granted by the small, shallow kitchen cabinets which hang well above my reach.

God, who heard Her name taken repeatedly in vain without striking me dead. Please grant my prayer that I may not have to move again for a long, long time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

WSOP: The Last Woman Standing

Our own Sabyl Cohen has outlasted more than 8600 other poker players to get to the money rounds of the World Series of Poker. Now on Day 5, she's one of 62 remaining players. All the rest are men.

Her chip stack has steadily built, sometimes plunged, but she's a damned fine player, and she keeps coming back. I'm rooting for her, and not just because no woman has yet won the WSOP main event. She's smart, she's nice, and she's from Oakland.

I keep tracking her progress on her LJ and on

Even if she busts out tonight, she'll be in for a sweet six-figure payoff. But I hope she goes all the way to that winner's bracelet and the $12 million that goes with it.

ETA: She's out: 56th place, $123K payout.

Sabyl, you did an amazing job.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Not an April Fool's Joke

It's a Lammas Fool's joke, courtesy the Bullshit Broadcasting Confederation.

Mel Gibson Arrested on Terrorism Charges.

He's got the money, and he's got the anti-semitism. He's a nasty drunk. ABC has canceled a deal to do a Holocaust miniseries with his production company.

But he has, so far, not been arrested for terrorism.

Now don't you feel better?
Sacred Image Alert!

This picture is ultimate proof of the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster! The face of the Saucemonster, the FSM’s incestuously intertwined Uncle-Bride-&-Poker-Buddy, has been revealed to the world.

No longer will we need to blush when other gods’ faces show up in cloud formations, ant farms, and mildew colonies. We have our Sacred Saucemonster, and a very fitting partner Zie is for the FSM.

All hail the Saucemonster!

FSM, pastafarianism, saucemonster

Sunday, July 30, 2006

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

That’s the line everyone remembers from “A Room of One's Own,” but it is very far from the whole story.

“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”

And that is what Woolfcamp is about. Bringing people together to think, talk, share: creating community by linking people who blog.

My first visit to Woolfcamp was a rescue mission; when my friend Debbie’s car wouldn’t start, Alan and I drove to Santa Cruz to get her. (It was a wonderful drive through the dark, over hilly roads.) Woolfcamp was over, but I had a chance to talk to some people, and I knew I wanted to participate more.

My second visit coincides with my purchase of a new truck. (New to me, at any rate.) One of the advantages of community is that people with complementary needs can connect. Liz,who is hosting today’s Woolfcamp, needed to sell her 1993 Mazda B2200. I needed an inexpensive vehicle, preferably a truck. We can meet each other’s needs. Moreover, while I was here looking at the truck, I glanced through Helene Cixous’s “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, which I hadn’t read since grad school. I instantly realized this was what I needed now:

Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their own bodies for the same reasons by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text as into the world and into history by her own movement.

I’m all in favor of both privacy and financial independence. having my own space, an autonomous life, and as much financial independence as I can achieve by working for it, as opposed to inherited wealth. But for me, that life must be sustained and supported by participation in community.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hallelujah, It’s the Vulgate Latin!

Yes, the Vale of Tears verse is in the psalm I quoted.

An ancient Irish manuscript found in a bog last week does not refer to "wiping out Israel", the National Museum of Ireland said on Thursday, after a flood of enquiries wondering at the timing of the discovery.

The National Museum of Ireland announced on Tuesday what it said was one of the most significant Irish discoveries in decades; an ancient Psalter or Book of Psalms, written around 800 AD. It said part of Psalm 83 was legible.

In modern versions of the Bible, Psalm 83 is a lament to God over other nations' attempts to wipe out Israel and many commentators wondered at the coincidence of such a discovery at a time of heightened tension in the Middle East.

"The above mention of Psalm 83 has led to misconceptions about the revealed wording and may be a source of concern for people who believe Psalm 83 deals with 'the wiping out of Israel'," the museum said in its clarification.

The confusion arose because the manuscript uses an old Latin translation of the Bible known at the Vulgate, which numbers the psalms differently from the later King James version, the 1611 English translation from which many modern texts derive.

"The Director of the National Museum of Ireland ... would like to highlight that the text visible on the manuscript does not refer to wiping out Israel but to the 'vale of tears'," the museum said.

The vale of tears is in Psalm 84 in the King James version.

"It is hoped that this clarification will serve comfort to anyone worried by earlier reports of the content of the text," the museum said.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Backhoe Bibliomancy

Fortune-telling by randomly choosing a passage from a sacred text is an ancient practice. The classical Greeks used Homer; the Romans used Vergil’s Aeneid. Even Christians who would condemn astrology or Tarot have been known to flip open the Bible to get a coded message from the Divine.

Using heavy construction equipment to do so is, perhaps, overkill.

Recently an Irish backhoe operator spotted an ancient Book of Psalms in a peat bog. It was open to Psalm 83.

Given the apocalyptic mindset of certain world leaders and the current crisis in the Middle East, this is clearly a sign. But of what?

It all depends on the burning question of whether the book holds to the Catholic or Protestant numbering.

Psalms 83 in the Douai-Rheims version used by Roman Catholics is a lovely verse of praise for the protection of God.

83:2. How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!

83:3. my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God.

83:4. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones: Thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.

In the KJV, Psalm 83 is a rant against the enemies of Israel, imploring God to smite them.

83: 1: Keep not thou silence, O God: hold not thy peace, and be not still, O God.

2: For, lo, thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate thee have lifted up the head.

3: They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and consulted against thy hidden ones.

4: They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.

5: For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against thee: [snipped: list of enemies with a few pious wishes for their destruction]

13: O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind.

14: As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire;

15: So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.

Unfortunately, according to the article, The book was found open to a page describing, in Latin script, Psalm 83, in which God hears complaints of other nations' attempts to wipe out the name of Israel.

Now, the book-lover and medievalist in me rejoice at the rescue of another ancient book. The fortuneteller is reading it as a sign. And the person who hopes the Apocalypse won’t happen next week regrets that there are highly placed politicians who may well believe this is a signal to get the end times started with a nice nuclear Armageddon.

Incidentally, this coming Sunday would normally be International Bog Day, but for unstated reasons, the holiday has been canceled this year. Is that a sign too?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Recent Reading and Viewing (A Random and Seriously Incomplete Sample)

A brief memorial quotation in honour of Miss Jane Austen, who died 189 years ago today:

“Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint.”

Excellent advice from a delightfully over-the-top character: the wicked Lady Susan.

Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson. To my shame and sorrow, this is the first book of his I’ve read, although for years I’ve heard praise of The Years of Rice and Salt from people whose literary opinions I generally share. But I didn’t get lured in until I heard a few lines of his latest volume read aloud. “Hey, he’s good!” So Debbie Notkin found this for me. A canny choice on her part, assuming she wanted to get me addicted immediately.

It’s a novel of politics, of ideas, of place, of class, of action and suspense, all at the same time. Yet the characters are believable, unique, richly textured: The woman who guides tourists through Antarctic treks, the disgruntled low-end laborer seeking a home and a sense of control over his life, the Chinese poet who sees and broadcasts the world for his people back home, the Congressional aide working on treaty and ecological issues for his wildcat boss.

As Debbie said, I’d know his characters if I passed them on the street. I would also *like* most of them; they’re generally intelligent, if a little too heterosexual for me. In his endless fascination with sexual dimorphism, Robinson can forget that both nature and sociobiology require a certain number of individuals to be non-breeders. Or, to cast it in social terms, he just doesn’t seem to see or imagine himself into the life of someone who’s gay. I can live with that, since he does a good job of speaking in the voices of a worker on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and of people much higher on the scale of power and prestige. Anybody who doesn’t automatically discount the working class as a bunch of ignorant and stupid louts gets extra points in my book.

Moreover, the prose style is ravishing: transparent in scenes where elaborate words would obscure the point, dense and shimmering in the grand descriptions of the glaciers. Robinson never loses sight of the story when he indulges his taste for wordplay, and the great architectural descriptions are essential for making readers *see* Antarctica in all its grandeur.

The sense of place, of identification with a place, is very powerful in this book, and it’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed it. I’ll be buying my own copy—and underlining a lot of passages. My own fascination with Antarctica goes back to childhood, when I read Admiral Richard Byrd’s monumental Alone. Frankly, four months of total solitude, with a record player and some books and enough food sounded like sheer heaven to me then. It still sounds good.

Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson. This is good but also clearly the beginning of a trilogy, so there are a lot of strings left hanging. That’s OK. I wish it were far-future SF instead of slightly prescient weather forecasting, though. It’s all about global warming, and it has the usual cast of strong and intelligent straight characters of both genders. I was glad to see Senator Phil Chase, maverick California politician, back in this book. (He was a minor but important character in Antarctica.) I’d vote for him for president any day.

Although it’s a solid, well-written book, I’m glad it wasn’t the first of his that I read. It would never have grabbed me the way Antarctica did. I’d have read other books by the author, but I wouldn’t have felt *seized* by his vision.

Peter Straub, In the Night Room. I confess that in the first few chapters I thought Straub had lost his mind, and was reminded of this:

“Poor Hoffman! This going mad of a friend comes straight home to any man who feels his soul within him. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who never felt, momentarily, what madness is, has but a mouthful of brains.”—Herman Melville, quoted as an epigraph to Daniel Hoffman’s monumental Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, AKA Poe to the Seventh Power.

But I have a great deal of faith in Straub’s authorial skill, and I kept reading through the chaos of the early chapters—a chaos necessary to the ultimate success of the book.

I am not, in fact, sure of how successful the book was. I figured out the essential trope quite rapidly, but the quality of the prose, the intensity and delicacy of feeling expressed, made the book memorable. I’ll be rereading it soon and will report again on my reactions.

Great quotation: “I love my God. I just wish he didn’t need it quite so much.”

OTOH, the book infuriated me in one very specific way. Tim Underhill, who has appeared before in various Straub books (Koko, The Throat (one of my talismanic books, infinitely rereadable), Lost Boy Lost Girl), is gay. He has never so much as kissed any male onstage, so to speak, in any of these books, although it’s clear he has a romantic/sexual relationship with his friend Vinh and had in his youth visited male prostitutes in Vietnam. But he is shown in an intensely erotic and detailed sex scene with a female here.

And that infuriates me. Marge Piercy has often done the same, particularly in the pioneering, often admirable Small Changes and the bitter, vindictive Summer People. I get tired of the privileging of heterosexuality in everything from romance to sex scenes. I don’t expect Straub to be writing slash, but it truly bothers me that (presumably to spare some readers) he can’t show his hero making love the way he has done for his entire adult life.

And thus we come to Possession (the movie) and Possession (the book).

warning: spoilers ahead
I’ve loved the book since I first read it back in the late 1980s. Tender, suspenseful, replete with wonderful scholarly jokes and references, a richly satisfying book on both the emotional and intellectual levels. Yes, it bothered me that it shortchanged all the lesbian relationships—the 19th-century love between Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover, the 20th-century occasional fuck-buddy relationship between Maud Bailey and the grand, larger-than-life American scholar Leonora Stern (who never shows up in the movie at all). The severed relationship with Blanche never gets enough explanation or its due moral and emotional weight.

And the movie just made that a thousand times more visible, valuing the fleeting four-week affair Christabel had with fellow poet Randolph Ash far more than the years of love with Blanche. I can’t fault the film for not saying what the book also didn’t say, but it was so obvious and so fucking painful for me that I couldn’t finish watching the movie. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I know what it is to fall in love with a straight woman, and it hurts like hell to lose a woman to a man. I am not in the mood for *any* artwork that unthinkingly glorifies Twue (Het) Wuv, even tragic, doomed, brief True Het Mating Instinct, over the ongoing love and passion and companionship of same-sex relationships.

Nevertheless, what I saw of the film looked good. Very different from the book, but also charming, witty, fun. Jennifer Ehle is an audacious and self-possessed Christabel with a lurking twinkle in her eyes; Gwynneth Paltrow is a believable Maud Bailey. Aaron Eckhart has his charms, but he couldn’t be less like the Roland Michell of the book. Jeremy Northam, on the other hand, makes a fine Victorian poet, passionate yet correct.

Zorba the Greek doesn’t discount same-sex relationships, though they are neither overtly sexual nor overtly romantic. People speak of it always as a warm, life-affirming film in which Basil, a rigid Englishman (played by the young Alan Bates, who was already a fine actor), gets warmed up by contact with an earthy Greek peasant Zorba (played con brio by Anthony Quinn). Well. Not really.

Alan Bostick’s one-word review: “Vile.”

My review: “Misogyny, irresponsibility, deceit, and denial masquerading as freedom and joy and love .”

warning: spoilers ahead for Zorba and Lonesome Dove

Zorba has an affair with an older Frenchwoman, a retired prostitute, whom he secretly despises. (He calls her an old bitch while she sleeps, and he goes off to fool around with a much younger whore.) His lies beguile her, but he can’t really love her; he treats her and speaks to her with too much open contempt. When she dies, the old village women come in and strip her home of everything, leaving her corpse lying alone in bed. She won’t even be buried because she isn’t Greek Orthodox. What happens to her body isn’t revealed. Maybe stray dogs ate her, a suitable ending for Jezebel.

Zorba also advises young Basil to sleep with the gorgeous young widow (Irene Pappas, looking luminous) who has made herself unpopular with the local peasants by refusing to marry one of the young village heroes. Eventually, Basil loosens up enough to do so.

I bet you can’t guess what happens next. Do they find love and friendship? Get married, have a baby, raise some goats and olives? Part in heartbreak with a tender self-sacrificing Casablanca-style scene? No. First the village hero drowns himself in despair. Then the widow, attempting to go to the funeral, is hunted down and murdered in a scene so viciously brutal it left me totally triggered. Zorba made a feeble attempt to save her. Basil just stood there.

Does this tragedy make him re-examine his life? Nope. He takes no responsibility. Zorba asks, “Why do young people have to die?” Well, I’ll tell you why this woman died. She slept with your friend. Against all the rules of that society, and he stood by and let her die, and you did too. But hey, at least he doesn’t have to worry about having to look her in the eye the next day!

The world was very different in 1964. Routine misogyny was omnipresent and invisible, like a specialized carbon monoxide lethal only to women. This movie is a fairy tale of sorts about a young man’s growth; most fairy tales don’t give full emotional and moral weight to the deaths of characters. And because the deaths of both women don’t affect the characters much, they’re readily forgotten by viewers. The friend who recommended the movie to me (who had last seen it 30-odd years ago) had completely forgotten the young widow’s desperate attempts to escape from the murderous villagers with their stones and knives, or her final agonizing moments.

Zorba’s brave laughter in the face of his own failures, his willingness to dance when things go wrong that cannot be fixed, is something I do admire—and in fact something I’m pretty good at. As my grandmother said at the funeral of her much-loved mother-in-law, “We can make a picnic out of anything.” But sometimes denial is dangerous to yourself and other people, and sometimes tragedies have to be faced and felt. But this film fits into a whole series of “don’t look back” movies that came out after World War II and Korea. It’s one way to deal with PTSD.

I prefer the approach of Gus McCrae, one of the two shadow-heroes of Lonesome Dove (another longtime favorite, which I just reread). He says, "The earth is nothing but a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight." Nevertheless, he doesn't scant or ignore real feeling, and his care of a captive who had been brutalized is both brave and tender.

When I say shadow-heroes, I mean that he and Woodrow Call, his partner in the Texas Rangers and on the cattle drive, are each other's shadows. I suspect that's also happening in Zorba the Greek.

Lonesome Dove is also a fairy tale, but so densely imagined, so beautifully populated with strong characters, history, animals, landscapes, that it works also as a novel. It plays out the ongoing rivalry between civilization and wilderness, the campfire and the hearth, the rough-and-tumble of male companionship and the pleasures and dangers of a life with women. One of the epigraphs says, "What we live, they dreamed. What they lived, we dream."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Behold, Waters Rise up out of the North*

Eastern Pennsylvania, upstate New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are drowning under the weight of a storm that has dumped up to 13 inches of rain in the past four days. Despite a lull in the nearly week-long heavy rains, the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Rivers - and other rivers and streams already near or over their banks - were still rising and expected to crest between late tonight and Friday. The Delaware and the Schuylkill are the two rivers that meet in Philadelphia; the Delaware forms PA’s eastern border with New York and New Jersey, which are also hard hit.

These are all places I have lived; when I read about flooded neighborhoods, I know the people who live there, and I have driven the roads that are washed away. The hospital where I was born (and two of my sisters, and where my mother did her nurse’s training) is under water.

The Susquehanna River is flooding almost from the source to where it meets the sea. It rises at Cooperstown, meanders through New York, and dips into PA in Susquehanna County, where nearly the entire community of Hallstead is under water, including buildings and vehicles. My high school cafeteria is full of evacuees. There are a dozen places where floods have cut off country roads. In many places, it’s worse than the terrible Agnes flood in 1972.

In Honesdale, home of Highlights for Children, a small creek flooded, forming a lake ... downtown.

My God—200,000 evacuated from Wilkes-Barre, helicopters doing roof rescues in Bloomsburg and New Milford, water cascading over the floodwalls in Binghamton, evacuations in Vestal.Elsewhere in the Binghamton area, an entire house floated down the Susquehanna.

Residents of Tunkhannock, Wyoming County are stuck. There is no way in and no way out. The Tunkhannock Creek is at one of its highest levels in years. That creek’s source is in Jackson; it wanders along Rte. 92, often well below the road, sometimes right beside it. It rose high enough that the interstate was closed from there to the New York state border—more than 20 miles of freeway.

There are bridges out in a dozen places, mudslides on 81, a breached dam in Nanticoke, major roads—routes 6, 11, 29, 81—closed for flooding, minor roads inundated and undermined. Even Main Street in Forest City was flooded. The creek there is just not that big—usually.

The little creek where I learned to swim is up over Zaner’s Bridge, and there are floods along 487 from Bloomsburg to Benton. Dozens of other small roads are flooded, too.

Nearly 11 inches of rain has fallen in Sussex County, NJ, where I lived in the early years of my marriage. I’ll bet the Pequannock is well over its banks and flooding my former street; shore access for the Delaware from Milford, PA, to Delaware Water Gap is closed, since the river is ten feet over flood stage.

As far as I know. all my friends and family are safe, if somewhat soggy. But I still feel weirdly helpless. This is my countryside, and I'm not there to take care of it. Pure magical thinking, of course. But I miss my place.

*Jeremiah 47: 2

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Didn’t Schadenfreude Play for the Phillies? Yeah, He Was a Southpaw Knuckleballer

The Mets are at the top of the National League East, with the Phils in second place. (Nine and a half games back, but still.) And the Atlanta Braves are at the bottom of the division with a .435 winning percentage.

I gloat.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Were You There?

In honor of May 25, some quotations from Terry Pratchett's Night Watch.

“Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.”

“When there’s a kid on the way, well, suddenly a man sees it different. He thinks: my kid’s going to have to grow up in this mess. Time to clean it up. Time to make it a Better World.”

The cemetery of Small Gods was for the people who didn’t know what happened next. They didn’t know what they believed in or if there was life after death and, often, they didn’t know what hit them. They’d gone through life being amiably uncertain, until the ultimate certainty had claimed them at the last. Among the city’s bone orchards the cemetery was the equivalent of the drawer marked Misc, where people were interred in the glorious expectation of nothing very much.

Two types of people laugh at the law: those that break it and those that make it.

Vimes had mixed memories of Captain Tilden. He had been a military man before being given this job as a kind of pension, and that was a bad thing in a senior copper. It meant he looked to Authority for orders and obeyed them, whereas Vimes found it better to look to Authority for orders and then filter those orders through a fine mesh of common sense, adding a generous scoop of creative misunderstanding and maybe even incipient deafness if circumstances demanded, because Authority rarely descended to street level.

“Well done,” said a voice somewhere behind him. “Consciousness to sarcasm in five seconds!” [Editor’s note: I would love an icon of this.]

When you got right down to the bottom of the ladder the rungs were very close together and, oh my, weren’t the women careful about them. In their own way, they were as haughty as any duchess. You might not have much, but you could have Standards. Clothes might be cheap and old but at least they could be scrubbed. There might be nothing behind the front door worth stealing but at least the doorstep could be clean enough to eat your dinner off, if you could’ve afforded dinner. And no one ever bought their clothes from the pawn shop. You’d hit bottom when you did that. No, you bought them from Mr Sun at the shonky shop, and you never asked where he got them from.

“Y’know,” he said, “it’s very hard to talk quantum using a language originally designed to tell other monkeys where the ripe fruit is.”

The safe had still been there when he made captain, and by then everyone knew the combination was 4-4-7-8 and that no one seemed to know how to change it. The only things worth keeping in it had been the tea and sugar and anything you particularly wanted Nobby to read.

“I comma square bracket recruit’s name square bracket comma do solemnly swear by square bracket recruit’s deity of choice square bracket to uphold the Laws and Ordinances of the city of Ankh-Morpork comma serve the public truft comma and defend the fubjects of His ftroke Her bracket delete whichever is inappropriate bracket Majefty bracket name of reigning monarch bracket without fear comma favour comma or thought of perfonal fafety semi-colon to purfue evildoers and protect the innocent comma laying down my life if necefsary in the caufe of said duty comma so help me bracket aforesaid deity bracket full stop Gods Save the King stroke Queen bracket delete whichever is inappropriate bracket full stop.” -- Ankh-Morpork Night Watch oath

And [Lord Winder] saw plots and spies everywhere throughout his waking hours, and had men root them out, and the thing about rooting out plots and spies everywhere is that, even if there are no real plots to begin with, there are plots and spies galore very soon.

They might be very bad at it but they were coppers, and coppers did not respond well to the Happy Families approach: “Hello, chaps, call me Christopher, my door is always open, I’m sure if we all pull together we shall get along splendidly like one big happy family.” They’d seen too many families to fall for that rubbish.

What was it Vetinari had said once? “Taxation is just a sophisticated way of demanding money with menaces”?

“And don’t you eyeball me. I’ve been eyeballed by experts, and you look as if you’re desperate for the privy.”

Sam: “Yeah, all right, but everyone knows they torture people.”
Vimes: “Then why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?’
Sam: “‘cos they torture people.”

“You’re an interesting man, sergeant. You make enemies like a craftsman.”

There was the People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road (Truth! Justice! Freedom! Reasonably priced Love! And a Hard-Boiled Egg!)

He wondered if it was at all possible to give this idiot some lessons in basic politics. That was always the dream, wasn’t it? “I wish I’d known then what I know now”? But when you got older you found out that you now wasn’t you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.

We who think we are about to die will laugh at anything.

Ninety per cent of most magic merely consists of knowing one extra fact.

He felt instinctively that if you were going to fondle a cat while discussing matters of intrigue, then it should be a long-haired white one. It shouldn’t be an elderly street tom with irregular bouts of flatulence.

“Winder is a madman, and that’s not good for business. His cronies are criminals, and that’s not good for business. A new Patrician will need new friends, far-sighted people who want to be part of a wonderful future. One that’s good for business. That’s how it goes. Meetings in rooms. A little diplomacy, a little give and take, a promise here, an understanding there. That’s how real revolutions happen. All that stuff in the streets is just froth...”

Madam: “The world does not deal well with those who don’t pick a side.”
Vimes: “I like the middle.”
Madam: “That gives you two enemies. I’m amazed that you can afford so many, on a sergeant’s pay.”

Coates: “What could you do, then? Arrest [Lord] Winder?”
Vimes: “Of course we can’t, but we ought to be able to. Maybe one day we will. If we can’t then the law isn’t the law, it’s just a way of keeping people down.”

As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

“Death to the Fascist Oppressors, Present Company Excepted! There, is everyone happy now?”

“You’re an officer of the law, not a soldier of the government.”

“Coppers were always outnumbered, so being a copper only worked when people let it work. If they refocused and realized you were just another standard idiot with a pennyworth of metal for a badge, you could end up a smear on the pavement.

He wanted to add: you’re a cell of one, Reg. The real revolutionaries are silent men with poker-player faces and probably don’t know or care if you live or die. You’ve got the shirt and the haircut and the sash and you know all the songs, but you’re no urban guerrilla. You’re an urban dreamer. You turn over rubbish bins and scrawl on walls in the name of The People, who’d clip you round the ear if they found you doing it.

Of course, he’d be expelled from the Guild if caught wearing such clothing. He’d reasoned that this was much better than being expelled from the land of the upright and breathing. He’d rather not be cool than be cold.

When he was a boy he’d read books about great military campaigns, and visited the museums and looked with patriotic pride at the paintings of famous cavalry charges, last stands and glorious victories. It had come as rather a shock, when he later began to participate in some of these, to find that the painters had unaccountably left out the intestines.

It’s a real soldiers’ song: sentimental, with dirty bits.

People said things like “quite possibly we shall never know the truth” which meant, in Vimes’s personal lexicon, “I know, or think I know what the truth is, and hope like hell it doesn’t come out, because things are all smoothed over now.”

He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night, if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting with every trick he knew... then it was too high.

It was regrettable how many rulers of the city had been inhumed by the men in black because they didn’t recognize a chance when they saw it, didn’t know when they’d gone too far, didn’t read the signs, didn’t know when to walk away after embezzling a moderate and acceptable amount of cash. They didn’t realize it when the machine had stopped, when the world was ripe for change, when it was time, in fact, to spend more time with their family in case they ended up spending it with their ancestors.

Vetinari: “‘You know, it has often crossed my mind that those men deserve a proper memorial of some sort.”
Vimes: “Oh yes? In one of the main squares, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Yes, that would be a good idea.”
Vimes: “Perhaps a tableau in bronze? All seven of them raising the flag, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Bronze, yes.”
Vimes: “Really? And some sort of inspiring slogan?”
Vetinari: “Yes, indeed. Something like, perhaps, ‘They Did The Job They Had To Do’?”
Vimes: “No. How dare you? How dare you! At this time! In this place! They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. Do you understand? They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. For ever.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”

One of “America’s Twenty Worst Agents” has struck again.

Our story so far: Barbara Bauer was listed as one of twenty agents and agencies who have been the subject of the most complaints to Writer Beware. Sure, it’s a popularity contest, but this one has meaning. If someone has prompted that many complaints without ever selling a book, she has presumably done a fair bit of damage to a large number of writers. Not a competition most agents would want to win.

These agents and agencies generally offer big promises, charge big up-front fees, and then deliver little or nothing. They're the spiritual heirs of the Famous Writers School so entertainingly skewered by the late Jessica Mitford (author of the quotation that titles this entry). These predators feed on innocent people who dream of being published and have no idea how to go about it.

None of these agencies has a significant track record of sales to commercial (advance-paying) publishers, and most have virtually no documented and verified sales at all (book placements claimed by some of these agencies turn out to be "sales" to vanity publishers). All charge clients before a sale is made--whether directly, by levying fees such as reading or administrative fees, or indirectly, for editing or other adjunct services.

Naturally, writers picked up this list from the SFWA website and disseminated it, and Barbara Bauer started sending huffy cease-and-desist letters. She also tried to get Teresa Nielsen Hayden fired from her job as editor at Tor Books on the grounds that Teresa had reposted the list and posted about Bauer’s threats of taking legal action.

All this just encouraged more people to post the list. Also to make fun of her; there’s nothing more amusing than someone claiming righteous indignation over their unveiling as someone of dubious reputation.

As of today, Barbara Bauer has gone from a laughable would-be bully to temporarily successful Internet censor. According to the highly respected Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a top-flight New York editor and fearless crusader for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, Barbara Bauer has gotten the Absolute Write website taken down. This site, described by one reviewer as absolutely a fantastic resource for writers! (exclamation point in original), had posted the Twenty Worst Agents list So Barbara Bauer complained to the ISP responsible for hosting the site, who took it down.

It should be up again within a day or so, but it’s still a shame that a wonderful resource for writers can be whisked away by empty threats of legal action.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Travel Reservations

Dear New England:

I am sorry I am coming to visit, since you’re now getting the worst rains and flooding in seventy years. (Up to 17 inches of rain since last Friday? That’s impressive.) I had hoped Lynn’s Travel Curse was broken, since my last few trips east occurred without incident.

February 1993: My first visit to sunny southern California, where from 9 to 12 inches of rain fall in a couple of days and a mudslide closes Topanga Canyon 30 minutes after I drive through it. Debris flows and flooding are widespread, but not nearly so catastrophic as my appearance on Jeopardy!

Summer 1993: Disastrous floods inundate the Midwest when I attend the RWA Convention in St. Louis, a city even more humid than Philadelphia. While I am dressing for the awards banquet (where the table to which I am assigned turns out not to exist), I glance out the window and see a small tornado wandering down the street toward the river. According to NOAA, The 1993 midwest flood was one of the most significant and damaging natural disasters ever to hit the United States. Damages totaled $15 billion, 50 people died, hundreds of levees failed, and thousands of people were evacuated, some for months. The flood was unusual in the magnitude of the crests, the number of record crests, the large area impacted, and the length of the time the flood was an issue.

January 1996: A trip from Philadelphia to Albuquerque for a work conference is delayed by fog, lightning, rain, 60-mph winds, and freakishly warm temperatures that combine to melt the three feet of snow left by the great blizzard a few days before. My basement floods, my mother’s driveway is ripped out by torrents, and I arrive in Albuquerque 12 hours late to give my talk with the beginnings of laryngitis.

Christmas 2000: Arkansas suffers the worst natural disaster in its history when I come to spend Christmas with Michele’s family. Two inches of ice coated Little Rock and the surrounding areas. Half a million people were without power, many for more than a week. We were having Christmas dinner when we realized the ice storm was starting. Although we made a brave yet unbelievably stupid spirited attempt to drive back to the cabin where we were staying (where we had, of course, left our luggage, medicines, etc.), we were foiled by an inexperienced motorist who stopped driving halfway up a hill. We slid into a ditch and had to walk back a couple of miles through the freezing rain. Well, I say walk. We walked, fell, slid, skidded, and even rolled. Did I mention that none of us were really dressed for this activity? Or that there were three dogs, to which I am deathly allergic, at Michele’s father’s house? Or that his house was without electricity and therefore heat for the next several days? Or that, the airport closed for three days, delaying my flight home? Or that, when I did finally get home, I was flying into a huge Nor’easter that dumped large quantities of snow on my home state?

September 2001: I fly back to New York State to finish packing and moving to California. My original reservations to fly out of Logan Airport at 8AM on Tuesday, 9/11, are cancelled on the advice of my sensible older sister, who suggests I’ll need a few extra days in the east. (I don’t even need to link to this. If you do not know what happened that day, you can Google it.)

Perhaps now you see why I don’t travel much. But take heart, Massachusetts. By flooding now, you may be avoiding worse things later. Volcanoes, anyone?


Monday, May 01, 2006

Bring Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses

My recent book research has taken me back into the familiar and beloved culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England: day-long Sunday services and annual town meetings, schooners and clipper ships, towering elms and lilac bushes, and prim Federal houses with their fanlights and balanced facades. The combination of thrift, sobriety, hard work, personal modesty, and reverence for learning sounds austere, but there was also great joy and fun. I was especially tickled by the young ship’s captain who sometimes kept his logbook in verse.

These are my ancestors, and I love them. They went on to envision an ideal of democracy and equality that became a beacon to a world where education, justice, and opportunity had been the privilege of the wealthy and the well-connected. They founded a nation and a constitution that, despite flaws and bigotry, nevertheless became a model to the world.

They were also illegal immigrants. Not only that, they were illegal immigrants who were ignorant of the local language, in dire need of welfare services, and unable to survive without the support and help of the people who were there first. They destroyed the local economy, too. They even spread disease—sometimes by accident, on a few shameful occasions on purpose. Any of these accusations sound familiar?

Think about it: The Pequot Indians, rightful residents of the invaded territories, didn't want them in the first place and did their damnedest to eliminate the pesky immigrants, once they realized how destructive the invasion would be. The Pequots had to give food and job training to the helpless Pilgrims, who would have starved without that social support. Within a generation, the Pequot way of life was smashed.

That’s the other side of New England: the genocide against the natives who so kindly fed the starving Pilgrims and patiently taught the first white settlers how to plant and fertilize corn; the triangular trade in rum/molasses/slaves; the murderous religious persecutions and literal witch hunts where anyone who seemed different was sought out and destroyed; and the relentless, unquestioning self-righteousness that may be their worst legacy to the United States of 2006.

So which side are we on? Do we choose the idealism of the young colonies, the willingness to let everyone regardless of birth have a chance to work their own way with their own two hands? Or do we side with the prejudice and contempt that values inherited wealth and despises some people as three-fifths of a human being? I see our country, where my family has lived for four centuries, becoming more and more divided into the wealthy and the oppressed, where the rich exploit the workers with impunity and where government and corporations join forces to drain cash from the pockets of the hard-working majority.

What immigrants, legal or illegal, ask for is a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children. Like native-born American citizens, they need work, dignity, a chance at an education, and a little help adjusting. The pennies we spend on them will be repaid a millionfold by hard-working, loyal people. Unlike the vast sums we disburse to Halliburton and Enron, where billions sink without a trace into the pockets of corrupt and powerful rich men.

Maybe we need an infusion of people who still remember the ideals of America. Our current Administration certainly does not. Crowning a lifetime of incompetence cushioned by wealth and privilege, George W. Bush is now bent on gutting the Constitution he swore to uphold by claiming the president does not need to obey the laws. Who is the greater threat to the peace and security of the United States: a hard-working illegal immigrant picking lettuce to make ends meet, or a loose-cannon rich boy in the Oval Office with delusions that God put him there to enrich the wealthy, torture prisoners, trash the checks and balances of the three branches of government, and invade foreign countries?

I know which one scares me.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Easter Quake

The foreshock came at 5:12 AM on Easter Sunday. About 25 seconds later, the full earthquake struck. The rumbling and shaking lasted 45 seconds to a minute. Immense forces ripped the landscape apart; in some places the ground moved as much as 20 feet.

No, this didn’t happen two days ago. It happened one hundred years ago today, and for the past three weeks, Bay Area residents have been enjoying saturation coverage of the centennial of the Great Quake that struck at 5:12 AM April 18, 1906, and devastated the city. Curators, cartographers, even choreographers have all paid tribute. A dozen or so survivors of the quake have been repeatedly interviewed, and they’re an astonishing bunch: quick-witted, energetic, and feisty. Some are still working.

You can watch the quake propagate—the viewpoint is from the west, showing how the central rupture spread north and south along the San Andreas. You can look at pictures of San Francisco then and now. And Tim Walton, an experienced news cameraman for NBC, points out that the quake signaled the beginning of citizen photojournalism. (He and his wife Kathy, a sound tech who often works with him, are friends of mine. Together, they've covered everything from Columbine to the Michael Jackson trial; Tim has also spent several tours in Iraq while Kathy stayed home with their children.)

The USGS, probably my all-time favorite government agency, offers a stunning exhibit on the quake, with photographs of the devastation, plus maps, and clear discussions of the science of the earthquake.

The real threat to the San Francisco Bay region over the next 30 years comes not from a 1906-type earthquake, but from smaller (magnitude about 7) earthquakes occurring on the Hayward fault, the Peninsula segment of the San Andreas fault, or the Rodgers Creek fault.

There’s an irony to this; many of the earthquake survivors fled to the perceived safety of the East Bay, which is where the next big threat is located. There’s a 27% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger quake on the Hayward by 2032. (There was a quake of that magnitude here in 1868; the ground moved three feet in some places.) You can see evidence that the fault is constantly moving.

Today it’s slowly creeping. Someday it will rupture, devastating the East Bay from San Pablo through Oakland and south to Fremont. Throughout the fault zone, the coastal plains near the bay are densely populated with homes and businesses, but in some places the hills are still grazing land for cattle. In other places, the hills are occupied by beautiful houses and at least one great university. Yes, Berkeley is on the Hayward fault. In fact, the fault runs between the goalposts of Berkeley’s football field. The East Bay is a ticking time bomb.

It’s also where I live.

Every single day I drive along the Hayward fault; it runs under Mission Street, which in my area is a strip of car dealerships, body shops, and transmission-repair places. I admit to slowing down whenever I pass the local expert on British luxury vehicles: I have to check out the classic 1930s Rolls-Royces, the Bentleys, and the Jaguar convertibles that are parked there, awaiting service. When the Hayward fault breaks, I hope it’s on a weekend, when those lovely cars are not directly in the line of destruction.

My workplace is constructed to withstand almost any quake, so despite its proximity to the fault I never worry about one when I’m here. We also have earthquake supplies: not just the usual ones mandated by law, but long-term survival supplies, because part of our job is disaster recovery.

My house is on bedrock, which should minimize shaking, and it’s at the peak of a hill with panoramic views. (On clear days we can see San Francisco and the Marin headlands beyond, plus the Bay and the Santa Cruz mountains on the other side) Specifically, it’s on the fault escarpment, the bluff that rose through the millennia as the Hayward fault broke and broke again. Yes, that’s right: I live perched like a ski-jumper above the most dangerous active local fault. Should it rupture again soon, I’ll have a front-row view of the devastation.

We who live on the fault are not helpless. Coming from a less seismically aware region of the country, I was astonished when I heard Californians matter-of-factly discussing the quake preparations they’d made. (Bolting bookcases to the wall, for example, or making sure the bed is not in falling distance of anything potentially lethal.)It’s possible to quakeproof your home. This won’t actually prevent any earthquakes, or even prevent your house from total destruction if the rupture happens in your front yard, but it’s useful advice. You can also learn to check for danger in a house you buy or rent.

Why stay? I was talking with Michele this morning. She pointed out, quite correctly, that the people who had fled the East Bay were jumping from the frying pan into the fire. “Didn’t anybody remember the 1868 quake?”

“That had been almost 40 years before, when there were a lot fewer people. Many people were new immigrants who didn’t know.”

“If I were looking for someplace safe, I’d have gone to South Dakota.”

“Where you have blizzards, tornadoes, heat waves, and droughts. And the Eastern seaboard is no better. There have been huge quakes in Boston and Charleston, and the Hudson River is on a fault. Someday New York City will get hit hard.”

She said, “I know—that’s why I picked South Dakota.”

“Why not Wyoming? There the biggest risk is that you’ll be beaten, set on fire, and tied to a fence to die.”

And that is one reason people stay here. It’s not just the spectacular climate. It sure as hell isn’t the real estate prices. Here at the edge of the continent, geeks and queers—both terms that have been reclaimed with pride—live in peace with people who would be average in Peoria. They’re used to us. We’re safe—as safe as we can ever be, anywhere.

So today, I celebrate the spirit of a city that survived the destruction of more than half its buildings. I celebrate the drive to rebuild more intelligently; every disaster has taught us more about how to live with our faults. I celebrate the San Francisco Bay Area. My home.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

“I'm Not Saying We Wouldn't Get Our Hair Mussed”

Recent snatch of telephone dialogue:

Lynn: You know why Bush wants to nuke Iran? Because he thinks saving Iran will be his legacy.

Alan: What, bankrupting the country and destroying our military isn’t enough?

Lynn: Not to mention pissing off the whole world. He’s managed to make everyone hate us.

If you would prefer that we not nuke Iran, MoveOn has an online petition. You can add your own notes to your Congresscritter. This is what I had to say:

This administration's idea of how to win friends and influence people is straight from the schoolyard bully, who resolves every dispute and assuages every frustration by beating up a smaller, weaker kid. The small-scale bully bloodies noses and makes a few kids' lives wretched, which is bad enough; bullying can leave scars for life.

Now extrapolate that effect to whole nations. Imagine the agonizing scars, physical and emotional, generations of Iranians would suffer if the United States, flaunting the flag of democracy, pre-emptively attacked them with nuclear weapons. Imagine the level of hatred and desperation they would feel. When people have nothing to lose and Paradise to gain, becoming a suicide bomber makes sense. Using a nuclear strike against Iran would make life in the US far more dangerous.

If you want to protect American lives, make Iran a friendly nation. Helping their economy and giving their young people hope for a better life on earth is likely to be a far more successful tactic than mass murder. Compare Germany after the Versailles treaty with Germany under the Marshall Plan. Which group was being punished by the international community? Which group lashed out at their own minorities and the rest of the world? Which group was peaceful, prosperous, free, and democratic?

We have become a rogue state under the leadership of an irresponsible president. Use your Congressional powers while you still have them. Now if ever is the time for checks and balances to halt the excesses of the loose-cannon executive branch. The Bush Administration is gutting the Constitution at home and promoting the Apocalypse abroad. Stop President Bush--or bear the guilt of thousands of deaths, now and in the future. Stop this bombing--and be proud to be an American again.

To quote General Buck Turgidson: “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books.”

Friday, April 07, 2006

Books that Built My World

Some people are raised by wolves. I was raised by books. This list of essential books is incomplete, of course, but it's a good start; it goes up to about 1980. I’ve chosen books that were turning points—that led me into new worlds, clarified or altered my vision, changed the ways I thought and wrote, or spoke for me when I could not yet find my own words. Not just books I loved; you’ll find no Faulkner here, for example, nor Willa Cather.

The King James Bible. In the beginning was the KJV. I learned to read from it. No book has shaped me more profoundly than that one. I know all the arguments against it, scholarly and otherwise. But still my sense of the Divine is shaped by the stubborn grandeur and simplicity of its language.

Geography, a Little Golden Book. Call it 1963; I was 3 or 4. My mother bought me this 29-cent book at the grocery store. Its picture of an erupting volcano sparked my lifelong interest in geology.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. When I was about 6, my mother gave me this book, saying, “This is a book about four little girls just like you and your sisters.” (Yes, I was the second of the four, and I already wanted to be a writer.) It’s also both truthful and well-written. I can still see traces of Louisa in my writing style.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. That pale, plain girl’s resolute integrity through abuse, hunger, and temptation was an early model for me. And her passion—her avowal of love to Rochester, her courage, her strong feelings for nature and other people—oh, these were an example and a role-model for me.

Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis. My sister Lisa gave it to me for my seventh birthday. The first Lewis I ever read, and the direct link to my reading such formative books as The Screwtape Letters, which is one of the great structural books of my life.

Poems for Young People, Edna St. Vincent Millay. A gift from my mother when I was about ten. Started my lifelong interest in Millay.

Modern British and American Poetry, ed. Louis Untermeyer. I found this book, scrounging around in the attic of a house we rented. I still have it. It opened so many doors for me. So many names—Pound, Graves, Sassoon, Chesterton—became familiar to me from that anthology, and when I saw them elsewhere I pounced on them.

Ammie, Come Home, Barbara Michaels. First read around Easter of 1968 at my paternal grandparents’ house in Chevy Chase, not far from where the book is set. They had the Reader’s Digest condensed version. (Most of the condensing was done by eliminating profanity.) This elegant, terrifying ghost story expressed one facet of the pain I was going through.

Moreover, the book introduced me to Barbara Michaels, who in turn sent me on to read Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey. I was and am deeply grateful that she referenced other books. So much of my reading was random; I chose books that looked interesting or authors mentioned by someone else I liked. I didn't have anyone to help me choose my reading. I scrambled and scrounged and searched for connections. Was there anybody else like me out there? Maybe the next book would hold a clue.

Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas. I picked this up in my school library in the spring of 1972. I drank it straight, and the effect was very much like chugging a bottle of straight whiskey.

The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden. A book of essays I discovered in my school library when I was 13 or so. Auden was as passionately, playfully addicted to categorization as I am, and I still enjoy his lucid perceptions on poetry, society, psychology.

“When It Changed,” Joanna Russ, in Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. In the summer of 1973, I was about to turn 14 and about to get braces. After a preliminary examination at my orthodontist’s office in Scranton, I went across the street to a combination gun/junk store, which had a few books for sale on a back shelf. I’ve told the story in this space before—how I found the anthology and knelt there to read the whole story, tears pouring down my face. The book cost a quarter; I still have it. From then on, I read anything I could find by Joanna Russ; The Female Man in particular became a touchstone, a book I reread, annotated, quoted, absorbed—a book that structured my thinking.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. I didn’t read Austen until I was 16, and then I realized that being a great writer required only that you see clearly and speak honestly. I’m still working on them both.

The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter Thompson. Probably in my sophomore year of college (1977), I was taking the Greyhound back from visiting my family. The bus was crowded that day, and we got stuck behind two funerals and a wedding. But my seatmate was a Penn student reading this, and he kept laughing aloud—and soon he was reading bits of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” out loud to me. I loved—and love—Thompson’s outrage, his politics, his crazily inflated language rigorously tied to precise, telling detail.

Small Changes, Marge Piercy. Look, people who were living the way I was living! These days I grow easily frustrated with Piercy, who can be mean-spirited and predictable, but in 1979 there weren’t many books that reflected my kind of life.

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen. She spoke of grief and exile when I was new to them both. I still reread this book in times of loss, and her short stories are always a delight to me. I marvel at the clarity of her prose.

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’d read Earthsea and felt cheated; the writing was good, but the world felt sexist to me. Somehow Malafrena worked for me, bringing together my lifelong fascinations with revolutions and with Eastern Europe (an unsurprising one, given where I grew up). I confess I fell in love with Itale Sorde. I went on to read all the rest of Le Guin, to find great power in her work, and to marry someone of Eastern European extraction, partly because he reminded me of Itale.