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

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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 Pokerblog.com

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