The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

Oct. 23rd, 2017 08:00 am
[syndicated profile] strangehorizons_feed

Posted by Kevin Power


In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades describes Socrates as resembling “one of those Silenus-figures sculptors have on their shelves. They’re made with flutes or pipes. You can open them up, and when you do you find little figures of the gods inside.” Translation: Socrates may have looked like nothing much (with his peasant’s clothes, his boorish manners), but if you cracked him open, you would find that wisdom lurked within.

Adam Roberts’s sixteenth novel, The Real-Town Murders, is a bit of a Silenus figure. Superficially, what we have here is a propulsive near-future thriller, somewhat in the mode of John Scalzi’s Lock In (2014). There are murders, mean streets, chases, ticking clocks. The plot is ingenious. The SF conceits are elegantly done (“sims,” “hybrid trees,” “myrmidrones,” an immersive Internet analogue called the Shine). You could take The Real-Town Murders with you to the beach (this would probably be an unusually highbrow beach) and read it for fun. Or you could open it up and take a look inside – in which case, you would find that, hidden inside the trunk of this particular jalopy, Roberts has smuggled a profound excursus on noticing and seeing. Because it turns out that The Real-Town Murders is a novel about attention: how we use it, what it means. So, caveat lector: in a novel about attention, we should be careful about what we notice, or we just might discover, when the final page is turned, that we have noticed nothing at all.

The Real-Town Murders pops up at an interesting moment in Roberts’s career. In a blog post published on his website in August 2016 (and since deleted), Roberts mused on the SF community’s semi-indifferent response to his previous novel, The Thing Itself (2015). “Latterly,” he wrote, “my writing has shifted from being an also-ran to a not-even ran.” It was a moment of uncharacteristic pessimism. Characteristically, it lasted no longer than a paragraph:

Enough of the doleful countenance: I've reappraised. My next novel, coming from Gollancz in 2017, will be a lot less ambitious (a lot less pretentious, you might say). It will be a near-future puzzle whodunit, and I hope it's entertaining, ingenious, and readable. But that's all it will be: it will attempt no Thing Itself-style contortions or clever-clevernesses, it will push no envelopes, certainly not to tearing-point.

Pondering this, a cynic might conclude that Roberts was all set to go slumming. “[E]ntertaining, ingenious, and readable”: it sounds like a frank grab for commercial appeal. On the other hand, by May 2017, Roberts was describing The Real-Town Murders as “part locked-room puzzle-whodunit, part SF/Hitchcockian thriller, and part literary-pretentious meditation on location, gender and textuality.” Kicked out the door, ambition and pretentiousness appeared to have snuck back in through the window. Perhaps it was a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la chose elle-meme (oh dear).

But let’s have a look at the thing itself. The inciting incident of The Real-Town Murders derives from an unrealised idea of Alfred Hitchcock’s, which Roberts recounted in a pre-publication interview for Amazing Stories:

The germ of the book was an account I came across of a film Hitchcock never got around to making. He had the idea for a pre-credits sequence, set (this was the early 1970s) in a fully automated, robot-only car factory. He said the camera would follow the whole process of a car being made: you’d see the raw materials being delivered by automated truck; the camera would work its way along the assembly line […] No people around at all; everything automated […] the camera would follow the now completely built car out the other end of the factory, down a ramp to join a long line of similarly assembled autos […] and … inside would be a dead body. “If only I could figure out how that dead body got into that car,” Hitchcock said, “I would make that movie.” But he never did, and so the movie was never made.

And this, transposed to a UK roughly half a century hence, is the opening scene of The Real-Town Murders. Our protagonist is Alma (no surname given), a licensed private security agent who lives in R!-Town (formerly Reading) with her partner, Marguerite. When the novel begins, Alma has been hired by the owners of McA, a company that makes “artisanal autos, built the old-fashioned way, not just squirted out of an industrial printer, each detail checked by hand” (p. 6). (This is sly: Roberts knows that new bits of tech make old bits of tech look more “natural,” and therefore more authentic.) In the trunk of a car manufactured at McA’s all-robot plant, the body of Adam Kem, a civil servant in his 50s, is discovered. Kem’s internal organs have been pureed by an unknown weapon. Nobody knows how his body wound up in the trunk: the car has been constructed entirely by machines under the supervision of the factory AI, and the security feed shows no human interference of any kind. The mystery seems insoluble. Worse, secret government agencies are circling, and Alma’s movements are heavily constrained: her partner Marguerite has been maliciously infected with a genehacked disease, an “aggressive neoplastic lipid” that can only be treated once every four hours, and only by Alma herself, “or a sudden brainstem inflammation would kill Marguerite in minutes.” Alma’s iron need to treat Marguerite every four hours generates much of the novel’s suspense: will she make it home in time? Will she outwit the police myrmidrone stationed by conspirators outside the door of her apartment? More piquantly still, Marguerite is the brains of the operation—the one most likely to actually solve the case. As she reminds Alma, “I’m the Mycroft here. You’re not the Mycroft. You’re the Yourcroft, at best” (p. 9). The chase is on.

So far, so near-future-thriller-business-as-usual—although we must admit, we’re in the presence of an unusually good near-future thriller, in which the ticking-clock mechanisms have been designed as if by one of those artisanal robots, with near-inhuman precision and poise. But at this stage, we’re still only seeing the outside of the Silenus-figure. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible to read The Real-Town Murders without noticing any evidence at all for the existence of the little gods within. But look again: that sequence in which Alma, paralysed by a sedative, succeeds in crashing a plane and escaping her captors—isn’t that vaguely familiar? And what about the scene in which an army of predatory drones settles ominously all over the street, the individual drones whirring and cheeping as Alma picks her way past—haven’t we seen that before?

Of course we have. The plane-crash set-piece is a riff on a drunken Cary Grant escaping his captors in North by Northwest (1959). And the drone attack (the chapter is called “The Drones”) homages the ending of The Birds (1963). By the time we get to the climactic battle—which takes place in and around a giant chalk effigy of William Shakespeare’s face, carved into the Cliffs of Dover—it would take real effort to miss the point: Roberts has written a Hitchcockian chase thriller crammed full of Hitchcockian allusions. Let’s see: Hitchcock’s original title for North by Northwest was “The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln’s Nose”; the final showdown of The Real-Town Murders takes place in a chapter called “The Woman who Sneezed in Shakespeare’s Nose.” And Alma, of course, was the name of Hitchcock’s wife and screenwriting partner (although the word alma—as the classically-trained Professor Roberts certainly knows—also derives from the Latin almus, meaning “nourishing,” making it precisely the right name for a character who nourishes her bedridden partner both literally and figuratively). And finally—In case we’re still feeling obtuse—the epigraph to Part 1, from T.S. Eliot, is attributed, or misattributed, to a poem called North by North Wasteland (“Think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key”). No clever-clevernesses, eh? As D.H. Lawrence said: trust the tale, not the teller.

But hang on: what the hell is The Waste Land doing there, at the head of a novel that pays such elaborate homage to Alfred Hitchcock? Think of the key: this sounds like an instruction, direct from Roberts himself. And the key, in this instance, is the Shine—the World Wide Web on steroids, the implacably seductive cyberspatial playground that sits at the heart of Roberts’s vision of the world to come. I mentioned Scalzi’s Lock In up above. In that novel, victims of a paralytic syndrome called Haden’s have been furnished with an immersive virtual-reality forum called the Agora, in which they can act, think, fantasize, and be. The Shine is Roberts’s version of this concept—not by any means a new SF idea, but used, in The Real-Town Murders, in a deeply interesting way. As a deluded government whistleblower called (ho ho!) Derp Throat tells Alma, the Shine is:

online and inline. It’s immersive […] Almost everybody has visited. And why wouldn’t they? It’s so rich an environment. It’s a place where dreams can be actualised. Made to come true. It’s a technicolour paradise. It’s a million paradises stacked up, and easy access to any of them […] People gravitate to the Shine because […] it’s simply better […] You can’t bully people into staying in a place they don’t want to stay in. (pp. 50-52).

The Shine, it transpires, is so great, so rich and interesting and cool, that almost everybody on earth is more than willing to spend every waking second inside it. Rather than unplug from the Shine, people zip themselves into “body-mesh” suits designed to move their physical form automatically, “to keep it limber, to avoid bedsores, stretch the muscles a little” (p. 9). When people do exit the Shine, they have forgotten how to speak: their verbal prose gets mangled in all sorts of interesting ways (a conceit worthy of Roberts’s great hero Anthony Burgess, this). The streets are denuded of people: this is a world in which eight individuals gathered together constitutes a crowd (p. 173), and in which Reading—or R!-Town—is “a desert cityscape” (p. 78), “all servers and storage” (p. 94). The terrain of the real has been sterilised and abandoned to machines: “Everything was continually cleaned away by tireless bots. It gave the whole place the vibe of a film set. Alma found herself wishing for a little honest urban dirt” (p. 223). The triumph of the Shine has also meant the wholesale export of civic participation to the online realm: questions of real-world political economy now languish, neglected, as everyone pursues online trade and pleasure. As another government employee—the sinisterly omnicompetent Pu Sto—puts it: “It’s not that people in the Shine don’t care, exactly: it’s that the Shine is so absorbing and so entertaining and so distracting that they only care if things intrude too disruptively” (p. 158).

Subsidiary to the Shine—and not entirely of it—is the feed: a neurological interface by means of which people can scan each other’s profiles, fire off instant messages, access email, and perform general interwebby ablutions. The feed is not immersive, but it has become indispensable to the business of daily life. For various reasons (ill-health, religion, principle), stray individuals choose or are compelled to live outside the Shine, but they still depend quite heavily on their feeds, which keep them jacked in to the global information networks. Alma is one of these individuals. Because of Marguerite’s condition, Alma must remain outside the Shine, adrift in Real-Town, among the bots and the server farms, in the eerily empty streets—her attention fixed (now we’re getting somewhere) on a world that has become (oh, yes) a waste land.

Think of the key … The key thing about the Shine and the feed is that they’re not reality. In fact, they’re better: character after character wonders aloud why anyone would prefer reality to the Shine. The Shine co-opts human attention on a global scale. But as readers we have no choice other to take all this on trust. Like Alma, we find ourselves excluded from the Shine. Roberts never shows us the stacked paradises of his neuromantic utopia. We only get to hear about them secondhand. This is interesting. But then again, the novel isn’t called The Shine-Town Murders. It’s called The Real-Town Murders. And Real-Town—or, more simply, real town—is what Roberts wants to talk about. (Compare, again, Scalzi’s Lock In, in which we are blithely escorted into an Agora that turns out to be kind of dull.)

This is a novel in which the old version of reality, deprived of attention, is losing vital substance to the new. The rebranding of Reading as R!-Town—updated, along with Wow-it’s-Slough! and Basingstoked!—was, we discover, part of a desperate attempt to sex up reality, to make the real as interesting as the Shine. But the only result has been to cheapen reality further. In UK-OK!—and in the world more generally—the attention of human beings has shifted to the virtual nonworld, and the real is fading fast. By now, you get the point: attention, in this novel, really matters. If there’s a hidden philosophical axiom underwriting The Real-Town Murders (if there is indeed a little god inside this particular Silenus-figure), it’s this: What you pay attention to, you make real. The book in fact begins with an act of attention, as Alma watches the security footage that shows the discovery of Kem’s body at the end of that assembly line. Notice is served: attention is what matters, to Alma, to Roberts, and to us.

A thousand SF writers have been ready to suggest that a wholly virtual future—a world stripped of the benefits of human attention—might turn out be threatening, or dangerous, or desolate, or corrupt. It takes Adam Roberts to show us that such a future would be terribly sad. Roberts is explicit about this:

Two neighbours, deep in the Shine for over a month now, were bodily out and about in their mesh-suits […] Overhead the sky was yawning into mauve, the first stars pipping into view. Alma’s block looked like a stilled chainsaw on its end. Something sad, somewhere. Something very sad, iceberg-sized and immovable and decanted into solidity from a thousand years of sorrow drizzling down from above. Was it hers, this sorrow? Surely not. (p. 24)

Of course, this “iceberg-sized” sorrow is partly Alma’s. She has sound personal reasons for feeling sad (Marguerite’s illness; her own isolation and fear). But the sadness Roberts is evoking here isn’t merely Alma’s. It’s a sadness that permeates the whole cosmos of The Real-Town Murders. Roberts seems to suggest that the ultimate victory of the online world—the victory of the Shine, with its massively supervening claims on our attention—is a kind of tragedy. (And, of course, it is: it is the tragedy of our moment, now, the moment at which, in case you need reminding, a bloviating orange-haired con-man is trying to start a nuclear war via Twitter.) Roberts isn’t going to let this tragedy pass unmarked. If humanity, in The Real-Town Murders, is a hermit-crab that has outgrown its shell, Roberts is going to make us look around our abandoned domicile. He’s going to compel us to put our attention back where it properly belongs: the streets of real town.

He does this the way a writer would: with his prose. This is Roberts’s description of the McA factory’s assembly line at work:

She watched the supply packtruc deliver raw materials, and toggled the p-o-v three-sixty as the materiel was unloaded and prepped. She watched old-school robots, fixed to the floor, pick up panels and slip them into the slots of various presses. Not a person in sight. Blocky machines spat smaller components down a slope, chrome nuggets tumbling like scree. She watched other robots, nothing more than metallic models of giant insect legs, bowing and lifting, moving with a series of rapid sweeps and abrupt stops like bodypopping dancers. Not a human being in sight. Rapidly the shape of the automobile assembled; a skeleton of rollbars and support with – her Alma froze the image, swung it about, zoomed in: nothing inside. Restart. The panels were welded zippily into place. The body of the car rolled down the line. It was a process familiar, traditional, as old as manufacture itself, and it went without a hitch. (p. 4)

This is a brilliantly paradoxical bit of writing: a lyrical account of a mechanical process. The prose, here, partakes of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called sprung rhythm, that bouncy metre in which spondees predominate. “[P]acktruc,” “old-school,” “machines spat smaller,” abrupt stops,” “zoomed in,” “Restart”—it all suggests the rhythmic swing and the jerky movements (“abrupt stops”) of preprogrammed machines. There is also a hidden joke, at the very end of this passage: if the process went off “without a hitch,” then the absent hitch, surely, is the Hitchcock who never got around to filming precisely this scene. This is very rich writing. In fact, its very richness is what compels attention. Real-Town might be Thriller-Town, all chases and fights. But it’s also real town, where the real still lives. And for Roberts, the real lives in language. This is why The Real-Town Murders repeatedly interrupts its action scenes and battles with bursts of beautiful perception. Towards the beginning, Alma notes “many starlings silhouetted against the sky like tea leaves left at the bottom of a pale china pot” (p. 20). Flying above the Channel, she sees a “cargoraft” on the open sea, “drawing a great bridal train of a wake behind it” (p. 71)—the word “drawing,” here, is laudably precise. More flying: “A pebbledash beach swung beneath them, and then a fuss of verdure” (p. 71)—that “fuss of verdure” is almost onomatopoeic; you can practically hear the grass hiss beneath you in the wind. Fleeing her pursuers in an underground car park, Alma crests “a DNA curl of concrete ramp” (p. 154).

Roberts’s lyricism extends, too, to his descriptions—more Eliot than Hitchcock—of R!-Town’s various outposts of abandonment and decay. He gives us “a decommissioned brick factory whose loading yard was littered with what looked like dusty avantgarde sculptural discards—a rusting truck cab, a stacked heap of metal casings, a large metal cube the colour of Marmite brailled all over with weathered pockmarks” (p. 10). Note, again, the sprung rhythm (“truck cab,” “stacked heap”). Note, especially, “brailled.” You can feel this world with your fingertips—which is, of course, entirely the point. Roberts’s prose, in attending so closely and so inventively to the felt textures of life, scatters water on the parched earth of the waste land. Welcome to the desert of the real? Not if Adam Roberts has anything to say about it.

The secret story of The Real-Town Murders is all about how Alma is forced to dispense with the virtual world and confront the textures of the real. When Alma, meeting Derp Throat, finds that she must switch off her feed to evade police detection, she is immediately overwhelmed by the realness of reality: “Perhaps she had spent too long plugged in […] The light had a different quality […] Seawater flaking and shoaling. Mist burning into gemlight. Abruptly she couldn’t look, and covered her eyes with her hands. Get a grip on yourself, lady” (p. 47). As the book progresses, Alma comes to appreciate the virtues of a no-filter sensorium. Here she is, seeing the jazzed-up Cliffs of Dover for the first time:

The White Cliffs of Dover had been sculpted all along their length into the gigantic visages of famous Brits—another attempt at injecting rebrand vibrancy into the declining real-world economy […] The real-world giant chalk faces reeked of desperation, people said. A desperate attempt to inject cool into a radically uncool Reality. Yet she had to concede, seeing them with her own eyes: there was something rather impressive about them. (p. 64)

The key phrase here (Think of that key) is “with her own eyes.” There is, after all, “something rather impressive” about reality—about the thing itself. The sculpted Cliffs are scorned by denizens of the Shine, who have seen much cooler stuff in their unreal kingdom. But Alma comes to understand that the real is worth attending to—that what we attend to is, in fact, where we truly live. When you see with your own eyes, you give life to what you see. This is a lesson for us, now, here. It’s impossible to imagine The Real-Town Murders appearing in any year other than 2017. Like the best SF, it isn’t about where we’re going; it’s about where we are: marooned on the steel beach, staring at our phones, endlessly invoking the dopamine hit of another tweet, another meme, another like, while around us, the real world dwindles. All of which is to say that The Real-Town Murders carries an urgent message—for those who are willing to hear.

But let’s put the hidden gods aside for now and look, once again, at the exterior of the Silenus-figure that is The Real-Town Murders. Do Alma and Marguerite solve the mystery of Adam Kem’s appearance in the boot of the machine-made car? They do—and brilliantly. (Hint: the first solution you’ll think of is wrong.) The journey is gripping—as gripping as North by Northwest, or The Birds, or (another reference-point here) The 39 Steps. Roberts is a tremendously expert plotter—which is another way of saying that he is a tremendously expert storyteller. The Real-Town Murders works as a story before it works as anything else, and this, I think, is what accounts for the unique pleasure to be found in reading it. The ideas, in Roberts’s work, are inseparable from the stories that tell them—just as the Silenus-figure is at once “made with flutes or pipes” (the materials of pleasure) and a container of hidden gods (the repositories of wisdom). The Real-Town Murders is, as Roberts intended, entertaining, ingenious, and readable. But it’s also a great deal more—if, that is, you care to take a closer look.

[syndicated profile] captainawkward_feed

Posted by JenniferP

Dear Captain,

Since I moved in with my sister three months ago, I’ve been….missing things. Things that are important to me, things I wouldn’t normally lose. My boyfriend’s $700 camera. My only/favorite pair of sunglasses. An Adderall prescription.

I’ve complained about this to my sister. I’ve wondered aloud to her if our third roommate has been going in my room, or if one of the friends passing through isn’t as trustworthy as we think. I’ve talked to her about how weird it makes me feel to worry that people are in my room when I’m gone, about how much I hate to distrust anyone, about how I try to convince myself that there’s some innocent explanation I’m not seeing. It did not occur to me that she could have anything at all to do with the situation–I trusted her completely. Until the day before yesterday.

The day before yesterday, we found the camera. Well, I shouldn’t say we. She found it. We weren’t even looking for it. We were trying to find the bottle of adderall. The adderall had been missing for days, the camera had been missing for months. Within minutes of us starting the adderall search, she opened up the cabinet under the silverware drawer, moved the paper napkins, and said, “Hey, is *this* your boyfriend’s camera that’s been missing so long?” It was.

Normally that wouldn’t seem suspicious to me, just weird that it showed up in a place that neither I nor my boyfriend would ever put it, and weird that I’d been using the cabinet for months without noticing the camera. But I had just watched the episode of Mad Men where [spoiler!] Sally steals the $5 from Grandpa Gene and then “finds” the money when he makes a bigger deal of it than she had anticipated.

Pretty soon she was asking all these questions…didn’t my boyfriend already get a replacement? What was he gonna do with this one now that we found it? Did he want to sell it? It probably wasn’t worth as much as he paid for it, the case wasn’t made of great material, good but not great, could she buy it for a couple hundred dollars?

It all made me so, so uncomfortable.

And today I remembered that around the time my sunglasses went missing, my sister bought me a new pair. They were old-fashioned and had that tortoiseshell look, like the ones I lost, but they were cheap and much too narrow for my wide face. (Part of the reason I’d been so bugged by losing the first pair is that finding cute wide-framed glasses has always been difficult for me, and I’d spent a fair bit of money when I finally found a pair I liked.) Now that interaction seems tinged with weirdness to me…like, was she trying to make up for taking or breaking the sunglasses in the first place?

And the Adderall never showed up, which is such a huge hassle.

I don’t know. Obviously none of this is 100% proof that she took these things (or that anyone did! maybe I just lost them!). It would be so much easier if I knew for sure….even if I knew for sure that she did it, I wouldn’t be super mad. But I would feel justified in taking action to move out and protect myself. As it is, I’m stuck in a state of uncertainty, having to live with someone I don’t totally trust, and feeling guilty for being distrustful when she might be totally innocent. In fact, the only things that make me feel suspicious of her, are good things she did–finding the camera, buying new glasses.

Help me, Captain! Did she do it? And, given that you probably can’t answer that, how do I live with this doubt without being unfair to her or myself?


Lina McLaidlaw

Dear Lina McLaidlaw,

You might never get the full story of where your stuff went or if it’s your sister’s fault, but here’s something you do know:

  1. You didn’t keep “losing” valuable stuff this way before you lived in this place with these people.
  2. It’s okay to take care of yourself around this by finding a new place to live even if you aren’t 100% sure what happened.

Like, maybe you don’t need beyond-a-reasonable-doubt legal case to say that something is off about the situation and to get out before it gets worse? If it is your sister, remove temptation. If she’s protecting or covering for a friend or roommate, or if she’s oblivious to what they are doing, remove yourself from that shitty situation. If your sister is totally innocent in all of this? You still get to move. Your reason can be as vague as “It’s not working out” or as specific as “My stuff keeps going missing and it’s really bothering me. I don’t want to blame anyone or accuse anyone, especially you, but I can’t live somewhere I don’t feel safe.” You’ve already talked to her about the missing stuff so it shouldn’t be a surprise.


Your boyfriend should not sell the camera to your sister or to anyone associated with her or anyone who lives in that house. Either keep it or sell it to literally anyone else. That whole situation smells.

While you live there, get a lock for your room’s door and a locked cabinet for things like meds, computers, camera equipment, jewelry. If your sister or roommates are suddenly offended by the idea of you locking things away, that is what is known as a telling detail. If you find yourself really resistant to the idea, like, I should NOT have to lock up MY THINGS inside MY OWN HOME, then…that’s one more argument for moving out.

This is so awkward, I’m sorry. Your instincts, especially re: the camera + controlled substance prescription drugs, are spot on. Trust those instincts and find a new place to live!



Oct. 23rd, 2017 05:51 am
[syndicated profile] book_view_cafe_feed

Posted by Diana Pharaoh Francis

My son attends an early college high school. What that means is that he’s in his junior year and is now taking all college classes. He’s always looked to me for help with his writing courses and writing assignments. Since I used to be a university English professor, I’ve a pretty good handle on essay writing and academic writing. His midterms for his English classes have been in-class essays. He’s a slow writer–he’s a science kid, and so he likes to write very carefully and slowly to be sure it’s right. I’m working on helping him learn the drafting/revision process. Anyhow, he’s got a midterm coming up. He likes to do a practice prewrite before so he has his head wrapped around the subject and what he wants to say. He can’t take it in, but it helps him cement his ideas for the exam.

His topic is on Orwell’s 1984. I haven’t read it in years. Years and years and years. So I’m rereading it now and it’s really surreal to encounter all the stuff that has become so central to today’s world. Not just Big Brother, but newspeak and doublethinking. It also represents a lot of what I wrote about in my dissertation–a system of social surveillance/self-patrol that’s built on Jeremy Bentham’s concept of prison.

I like to go back and reread books. Some people don’t. My son doesn’t like to. My daughter reads and rereads and rereads again and again and again. A few years back, I went through my shelves and took off all the books that I wouldn’t be rereading. I probably got a lot of them wrong, but decided that I was doing a little too much rereading instead of attacking my TBR mountain.

I did not get rid of my most favorites, or the books in unfinished series. I tend to reread series books with every new release. The problem is that none of that helped. I only acquired more books and my mountain kept rising. Making matters worse is the fact that I’ll buy books that sound good, and then when I get them, I’m not in the mood to read them. I find myself craving comfort-reads. Books that I know will satisfy and make me happy and don’t offer a lot of upsetting surprises.

That’s weird.

I decided it’s because the world today has been too surprising and sad and difficult. I like reading books with a happily ever after, or a good triumphs over evil theme. I also like some of the comfort reads from when I was much younger, although some of those don’t hold up as well as I’d like. But the Riddle Master of Hed series is one I love. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is another. Anything Jane Austen. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Lee and Miller’s Liaden books. There are a lot more.

I like Christmas romances a lot, and now’s the season. But so far, those I’ve been reading aren’t all that pleasing. I’m trying to decide if it’s something with me and figure out what I can do about it. I’ve been having some issues writing, too. But that’s a story for another time.

What are your favorite comfort reads? When do you go to them?

And I’ve a non-BVC book coming out in a couple of weeks. It’s the fourth in my Diamond City Magic series.  Check it out on my website and read the first two chapters.


[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

Today is Joe's 65th birthday. We have been together for all but 16 of those years. Our lives have intertwined in ways both planned and unexpected. He has earned every grey hair that he has. His work often goes unacknowledged but his commitment to the cause of disability rights and civil liberties is unrivaled. He is, frankly, an amazing man.

What I'm going to write about today stems from a place of some anger, however. I received, yesterday, an email. The content is unsurprising, I've gotten this before, but maybe because of Joe's birthday, maybe because of our years together, it struck me twice as fast and three times as hard. The email stated that I should 'stick to disability' in my keynote presentations because people have no choice but to be there and when I mention Joe, as my husband, I am making a statement that makes some people uncomfortable. The writer said she found it difficult to hear my message because of the white noise of my sexuality getting in the way.

I want you all, and her in particular, to know that Joe and I have long talked about my lectures and about our joint decision to mention our relationship, long before marriage was even thought about as a possibility, in every talk that I give. Every. One. Joe fears that someday someone will pull out a gun, I know that's a possibility but I think a small one. Our decision was made precisely because we wanted it to be clear, to any other LGBT person in the room that they weren't alone. We both know what it is to be the only one in a room, we both know how lonely that can be. I know specifically that in our field agencies have a dreadful history regarding LGBT people often attempting to purge us from the workforce. This still happens.

Because of what I do, I hear a lot of keynotes and a lot of session presentations. I have not kept data but I'm willing to posit that nearly 100 percent of heterosexual presenters mention their wives, husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends. They do it casually as if they don't notice the privilege they have, in that moment, to not fear the reaction. The blithe way they don't seem to realize that they won't get an email telling them to shut up about their lives and their loves. They also don't know that they are signaling to every LGBT person in the room that their relationships are allowed air time, that their relationships expect to be met with welcome, that their relationships are valued. I'd love one day to hear a heterosexual presenter say something like, "I know I've mentioned my husband a couple of times and I want you to know that I am aware that there are people here who are not free to speak of their loves or their lives and I acknowledge you and I support you in your fight for equal time." But I'll wait a long time I suspect.

Privilege is like that. It doesn't notice itself. It doesn't acknowledge itself. But it loves the freedom and power it has.

So, I will continue to mention Joe here on this blog, there in my lectures and anywhere I wish. If that makes you uncomfortable, you need to look at yourself and your attitudes not request of me, silence.

I love Joe.

He loves me.

I'd love those two statements to be purely personal without a hit of politics. But, for now at least, they are both. I know this because I still have LGBT people come up to me after a lecture and wait until they are sure their comment won't be over heard and they will whisper, "Thank you for being openly who you are," and many walk away quickly wiping tears.

It can be hard being so alone.

In a room full of people who say they care for people.

In a room full of people who say they believe in inclusion.

In a room full of people who say they believe that all means all.

In a room full of people who trim the edges off all and for whom inclusion for some and exclusion for others.

So, it's Joe's 65th birthday. And I get to spend it with him. I get to continue living the life we have together. I get to sit quietly with him, laugh uproariously with him and I get to continue to make the same silly joke with him that we've been making for 49 years.

Yes. You may have heterosexual privilege.

But I have the privilege of living with and loving Joe.

You have no idea how much better that is.

Happy Birthday Joe!
[syndicated profile] captainawkward_feed

Posted by JenniferP

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been dating this guy for 3 months now. He has this pattern of disappearing for a couple of days and then come back. At the beginning he was all super flirty on text and showered me with compliments and sent each other snaps and nudes and said all the sweet things like he wants to treat me like a princess and make me his. Lowkey I knew he was a fuckboy* because most of the time he wanted to sext and talk about fucking me. He said he wasn’t looking for a relationship but if we become more than something then sure but if we don’t then we continue being friends. I came out of a 4 year relationship couple of months ago so I have been out of the dating game for too long and I moved in here to California from a different country so the concept of dating is way here is new to me. He was showing all signs of “fuckboy*” but my mind ignored it and I got led on and I started to get feelings for him. I know, you must be thinking if I knew he was a fuckboy* the how the hell did I started to like him?

Well, first of all he is really charming and good looking. He is really smart and does all the gentleman things like open the door for me and pays for the food. He actually seems like a genuine good person when I’m with him. I forget every annoying stuff and red flags when I spend time with him.

I realized our relationship will not go anywhere and he will continue to play with me. Once I told him that I had feelings for him and this is getting too much for
me so I’m gonna end the “friends with benefits” thing and remain friends and he gave a simple response “okay your choice.” After 2 weeks he hit me up on snapchat after he saw a selfie of mine and said he wants to come over to my house in the weekend. I couldn’t say no. We had an amazing time and after that he ghosted on me again. He is emotionally unavailable and does not share much about his life. I want to end it with him but I’m too weak to do it. Every time I pull back, he then wants to chase me. recently I texted him ” are you ghosting on me or something going on with u?” then he replied with ” i’m just damn busy :/” .

I’m really confused what he actually wants. If he doesn’t like me anymore then why doesn’t he just tell me or stop texting me? The relationship is hurting me. I don’t blast him with lots of texts nor do I nag. I always try to stay civil and calm even when i’m hurt by him. I’m having a hard time opening up to him of what exactly I feel. I wanted to take the relationship to another level and spend more time with him getting to know him. I wanted him to be my boyfriend. But I didn’t demand it. I did not expect anything in return when I told him I liked him. Because I can’t force him to like me back.
What should I do Captain Awkward? Even though I make myself busy with things. But I can’t seem to not cut him out of my life for good.

Sincerely Confused

*Fuckboy = the letter writer is using it as a term to describe a man who is unreliable and untrustworthy around sex  or “Someone who’s distant but still craves attention.” It also has a history as a descriptor of prison rape victims and attaching men who aren’t traditionally masculine and is therefore a word we’re not going to use anymore at enterprises. I’m not telling anyone they can’t ever use it, but I’m going to personally stop. Not least because I am a big ol’ white lady and “well it’s more complex than that in AAVE” isn’t really the hill I want to die on in my comments section. Not every word that exists is an ok word for me. Cool? Cool.

Dear Sincerely Confused:

You say you’ve been dating for about 3 months and that you’re “confused about what he actually wants.

He said he wasn’t looking for a relationship. Ergo, what he wants is what is happening right now. He wants to flirt and have your attention and have sex with you sometimes. And then he wants to drop out of sight sometimes. He wants you to want him but he doesn’t want to be your boyfriend or have any obligation or deeper emotional connection. He wants you when he feels like it and he wants to be able to go away and ignore you when he doesn’t feel like it. He wants this. This thing that you say is hurting and confusing to you is the best this is likely to get.

You will never have a loving monogamous relationship with him where he is your boyfriend. If he wanted that, he would have said “Yes!” when you asked him about it. He would have made it happen. If you stay friends, or, um, “friends,” he will sometimes want to have sex with you, but it won’t mean anything has changed. Paying for dates and opening doors for you isn’t deeply meaningful. You’ve known/suspected this from the start, and he’s done every possible thing to confirm it.

It’s one of life’s great tragedies and comedies that we can have amazing chemistry and fun sexy feelings with people who aren’t actually good partners for us. That “omg this is the BEST” way he makes you feel should be illegal, right? Charisma isn’t the same as character.

The good news here is also the bad news: All the power to end or clarify this situation lies with you. You can stop this any time you want to.

You could decide “You know what, it’s worth it to me to have a fun diverting time with him when he pops up a couple of times a year, and I can safely ignore him the rest of the time, because I know 100% that it’s not going to turn into anything else.” To be clear, I don’t think this is where you are right now because you say that this is all hurting you. But I also know that there have been times in my life when a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency-need-for-uncomplicated-known-quantity-good-makeouts-dude has come in handy. No one would judge you if you changed his name in your phone to “Handsome Dumpster Fire” and didn’t delete it just yet. Winter is coming.

You could also decide “Hey, I really want a devoted, reliable boyfriend who loves me and I’m gonna hold out for that and not waste time on charming, unreliable dudes” and then deploy your new best friend, the block button. You’ll be sad and miss the thrill of the little roller coaster you’ve been riding for a while, but then you’ll feel better after a while of not being jerked around and there will be room in your life to meet someone else.

Back when she dated men, the lovely Samantha Irby (rocking it today in the New York Times btw) made a policy to protect her heart and reclaim her time. If she didn’t hear from a dude within a couple days of a date/sexy stuff/or simply her texting him, she deleted his number from her phone. That way she could resist the urge to keep pinging him or checking to see if he’d reached out, and if he did get in touch eventually she could legitimately be like “Wait, who is this?

If this sounds cynical, think of it as Sam deciding what she needed: Someone who, at minimum, texts back. Someone who pays attention. Someone who treated her like she was important and not some big interruption to the more important things he had going on. You can’t control your feelings but you can control how many times you leave a door open for someone who isn’t walking through it.

Letter Writer, you want love that shows up for you. You want love that is playing on your level. That’s not silly or “nagging” or annoying or needy, and the person who deserves you won’t see it that way. He also won’t act like it’s some chore to keep in touch except when he’s bored or wants something.

Sometimes the answer when someone ghosts on you, is “ghost harder!”




Joe Went Swimming

Oct. 22nd, 2017 05:09 am
[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

Joe arrived back in the hotel room saying he'd had a good swim. He hopped in the shower and came out dressed in his housecoat. There was a story that he wanted to tell me. I turned to listen and I saw his face and knew immediately that the story he had to share was important to him. I waited.

He said that when he got down to the pool the first thing he noticed was a bright red wheelchair. It was designed to be pushed and the seating had been specially fit. It was parked, waiting, off to the side of the pool down where the top of the ramp into the pool was located. In the pool was a young man of about 40 and with him was his daughter a woman with Down Sydrome, a physical disability, and a pretty significant intellectual disability. He was holding her up, helping her float, and walking around the pool. She was making happy noises and slapping the top of the water with one hand.

Joe isn't someone who jumps into a pool. He likes the ramp because it allows him to slowly adjust to the pools temperature, he finds most hotel pools cool. His trip took him by father and daughter. Joe said hello to both, the father, a little surprised that both had been addressed, introduced himself and his daughter and Joe did the same. Then, Joe began swimming. He's a lane swimmer and he found a lane, marked it with invisible lines and began to swim.

At the deep end, he stopped to catch his breath. The door opened and a small group entered, 5 adults and 3 children. The kids headed towards the pool, ready to jump in when one of the parents spotted father and daughter. A sharp cry, "Stop, get back here." The dad, with his kid, stopped and saw them all gather together and there was such pain on his face when he knew that he and his daughter were the subject of discussion. Do they want to get in the water with someone like her, someone so different. He turned and said something to his daughter and continued walking around the pool, holding her up.

After a few minutes they decided to use the pool anyways. The kids were excited and leapt in. It took a few minutes but soon everyone was in and everyone was having a good time. The child who was different was no longer noticed, no longer a subject of concern.

That a father loves his child, that a father provides amazing and exceptional support to his child, is not noteworthy to me. Parents love their kids. Parents of kids with disabilities do the same and I refuse to believe that it's 'inspirational' to love a child. What struck me, from Joe's story, was that the father, seeing the discomfort of others to his child being in the pool, didn't cede space, didn't pack up and leave, he understood that his daughter wasn't done. She was still slapping at the water and making happy noises. He stayed because she wasn't done.

Perhaps it was that the noise in the pool exploded at the entrance of the parents and children, but about 5 minutes later, she began to squirm in his arms and he leaned down, kissed her on the forehead and carried her out of the pool and wrapped her in a towel before setting her in the chair.

In the midst of prejudice he had held her up.

In the midst of discomfort he had held her up.

In the midst of prejudice he had held her up.

That dad's willingness to let his daughter's desires, not the reaction of others, determine what happens next, makes him a powerful advocate for social change. Being where you belong before people understand that the belonging belongs to you, that's an act of rebellion.

She is safe in his hands.

May she be safe for the rest of her life in the hands of others.
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Posted by Jill Zeller

Leaving M.C. Escher in Het Paleis, Hannah and I asked for directions to the Mauritshuis, The Royal Cabinet of Paintings, home of Dutch golden age art. It was always “Well, you walk across there and take the first right.” Or, “You walk across there and take the first left”, always with a vague wave of the hand pointing across a square toward a canal.

We passed a cello-maker. Since my husband once played one, I took a photo for him. The canals—of course there were canals—glistened like steel under the gray skies.

Hannah’s gift of navigation paid off, and we found ourselves entering a broad plaza bordered by straight-up Dutch structures housing Holland governmental bureaus. The only problem was, there was no indication of which housed the museum. We wandered through a gate toward a church, reversed directions, and going through an iron gate we asked a security guard standing in front of a lavish, mustard-colored mansion.

Of course, this was the Mauritshuis. (Maurice House is the English translation, according to Wikipedia.) It was originally the house of John Maurice, the Governor of Dutch Brazil. Imagine the Dutch in Brazil. They did get around back in the day.

The entry was to the side, down stairs that sank below the level of the canal. Through a gap in the wall we could look on the water dotted with bits of trash.

After purchasing our tickets, and having our purses scrutinized by a guard, we took the stairs up to the museum. My Belgian colleagues had called out the jewel of the art museum: Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring.

The Flemish school of painters flourished on and off from the 15th to the 17th Century in the Low Countries along the North Sea. Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Brueghel and more. The best known works are Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) and Rubens’ Night Scene.

These were all astonishing, but what I found myself obsessed with were the still lifes.

In the dozen or so I studied, all floral arrangements that the Dutch painters were admired for, I discovered an interesting similarity. There was a central vase loaded with oriental lilies, tulips, peonies, roses. On the table top on which the vase was placed, were more objects. As you face the painting, there was always an insect on the table to the right, and a fallen stem or bloom on the left.

The arrangement was the same, but the content differed. There were always flowers, but the insect prop could be a beetle, lady bug, butterfly, honey bee. The fallen stem may be a flower, or a leaf, or fruit, but the composition rules were always strictly followed.

Tired but pleased with our trek, we walked back to the train station. The interior of the Den Haag cafes were jammed with folks in the late afternoon. I wished I had stopped in one for dinner, since the Hilton restaurant was getting tiresome. Next time I stay on the train into Amsterdam and find myself a beer hall. Although my Belgian friends tell me Belgium has much better beer.


Brussels Sprouts

Oct. 21st, 2017 06:52 am
[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

Last evening I made one of our family recipes. We have several of these. Recipes that were developed based on opening the fridge and seeing what was there and, from that, throwing a meal together. Sometimes a magic happens and the meal joins the list of our comfort foods. Food that tells us we're home, we're safe and we're together. We've been on the road a fair bit and we have a fair bit to go, on the flight home I had a craving for what we call 'cabbage roll casserole' even though it's made with Brussels sprouts rather than cabbage and even though it's layered not rolled. We've been making this since someone gave us a big bag of sprouts nearly thirty years ago.

It's a bit of a complicated recipe, simple to make, but it involves chopping and steaming and frying and grating before assembling. I started by trimming the sprouts and then I was off. We have this several times a year and the recipe is firmly in my head so there was no need to checking or reviewing there was just doing. I got into the rhythm of the process and flew around the kitchen getting what I needed, getting things out of the fridge and then putting back what was no longer needed. At the same time we needed to make a different meal for the girls, open faced grilled cheese, another home grown recipe, and that needed to be done.

Over the course of cooking, first Joe, them Marissa, then Ruby and then Sadie joined in, each doing different parts of the preparation. It was organized pandemonium and I was right in the mix with everyone else participating as an equal member. An equal member is a necessary member, someone who's work made the end result possible. All of us had our roles and our individual tasks, and we all did them.

Somewhere in there I realized that I was having fun. The bunch of us in the kitchen, the bunch of us talking, laughing and working. Ruby and Sadie came up with an experiment they wanted to try with their sandwiches, to see which way of putting on the cheese would taste best, so they did that, loving that their suggestion was greeted with a ' great idea' (because it was) and then just doing it. 

This is probably a very ordinary scene for most of you. But for me, it's still extraordinary. I'm still getting used to the gifts of living in an accessible space. The fact that I can use my kitchen means more than being able to prepare food, it means that I can be a part of something bigger, something better, something meaningful. It means that my belonging isn't just a conceptual idea it's a physical reality. It means that when I am remembered by the girls in the future, they will remember me, now, as someone who worked beside them, rather than someone who sat in the doorway to the kitchen and couldn't join in.

Accessibility is more than just a space to use, it's about being able to live freely. There was a moment, last night, when the girls were on either side of me determining the ketchup, deli slice, cheese ratio, when my soul felt deep gratitude for finding, after 11 years of being an outsider in my own place, home.
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Posted by Karen Grigsby Bates

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel with teammates during the national anthem before playing the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in October.

The anger of white fans "is what happens when black bodies don't conform to what white spectators and consumers want them to be or do or say," says Penn State assistant professor Amira Rose Davis.

(Image credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

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Posted by Sara Stamey

Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

With only two and a half days in Athens, Thor and I could barely dip our toes into the attractions of this bustling city, and we plan another trip soon.  I’m happy that Thor has fallen as much in love with Greece as I am! Athens, now cleansed of the eye-burning smog I was breathing 35 years ago, casually blends the ruins of 3000-year-old Classical and older Greece with later Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and modern buildings. The top photo we snapped from the Acropolis over the ancient Agora (gathering-place and possibly the first shopping mall) shows the blend of ancient Greek, Byzantine, and modern city.

Everywhere you look are the reminders of its long, rich history, and it seems that every time a new building or street repair gets underway, an historic remnant is discovered. Strolling along, you’ll often see the accommodations built around such finds to preserve them:

Since we were walking around the baking steets during an early September heat wave, Thor was grateful for the natural springs found everywhere in this country of porous limestone. Like the Italian vapas that saved us from heat stroke in Rome, these streetside fountains offer fresh, cool water to the weary traveler:

We took the recommendation of friends and stayed at a centrally-located hotel, named appropriately The Central Hotel, so we could walk the neighborhood or take the excellent underground to sites of interest. We never thought we’d enjoy their rooftop cold jacuzzi tub, but in the late-afternoon heat it was refreshing. From the rooftop deck and restaurant, we also enjoyed a wonderful sunset view of the Acropolis and Parthenon:

Again on the advice of friends, we found a quirky restaurant, “Tzitzikas keh Myrmikai” (I think I got that right), translated as  Cicada and Ant, with wonderful fresh salads and creative entrees like the lamb in flavorful sauce over a pasta nest that we enjoyed. The decor mimicked a retro general store, with shelves of dry goods and old ads papering the walls:

On our walk through the evening streets, we heard brass band music approaching and were soon in the midst of what looked like a parade winding through the cobbled lanes. We followed and realized it was a funeral procession bearing a casket, led by the uniformed band, then priests in their black robes and high hats carrying flower-trimmed icons and other sacred objects, then a lot of people following. They circled the block twice and ended up at a tiny old chapel with its foundations below the level of the present street, with a modern hotel built over the top of it, the sleek square lobby/porch posts straddling the old church with its tile roof. (I apologize for the blurry photo.) Apparently these processions are common, even in the modern city.

There are Byzantine and newer churches everywhere in the country, reflecting the culture of 98% of the population officially registered as Greek Orthodox. This one is a large, modern church near our hotel, still decorated with traditionally-styled icons:

And there are many shops selling religious items:

We spent a half day at the amazing Archeological Museum, and I wish I had had more time to appreciate its treasures like this Archaic Period (around 1200 BC to 500 BC) Kouros. Precursors of the more lifelike statues of later periods, they have stylized features and standard poses probably influenced by Egyptian culture:

You can see the difference in style and realism in this Hellenistic period (around 330-150 BC) or possibly Roman Period (around 150 BC to 300 AD) statue of Aphrodite, the marble carving so delicate that it almost seems you are seeing through the diaphanous garment draping her body:

And I had to revisit one of my favorite small bronzes, this jaunty phallic satyr. Again, I apologize for the blurry photo; visitors are allowed to take photos without flash, but this was through display case glass.

The many displays of small household items, such as painted ceramic ointment jars and spindles, give intimate glimpses of daily life in antiquity. These parts of a reconstructed chariot were also fascinating:

A favorite place from my earlier trip, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to revisit this time, is the Athens Central Market, a sprawling neoclassical edifice built in 1875 near the Ancient Agora where Socrates and Aristotle taught among the bustle of vendors of every kind. Several large archways open to corridors of fish sellers, a meat market, fruits and vegetable stalls, and crafts vendors.

In my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, my near-future Ariadne is feverish and near collapse as she’s pursued by relentless mercenaries, and she flees through the streets of a post-earthquake Athens. She stumbles onto the still-intact central meat market:


A clear alley magically opened to her right. Ariadne ran down it, hand pressed to the ache in her ribs as she sobbed for breath. Shouted commands rang out behind her. She bolted through traffic for the cavelike dark mouth of a building across the street.

Sunlight glare, and then shadow falling over her. Forcing her way through a wall of heat, bodies, and voices, she fell through into dimness. She faltered, blinking, numbly registering cavernous walls opening up before her. Overhead, a high ceiling of curlicued iron grillwork in flyspecked peeling white, flecked with red. Blood everywhere.

Slabs of meat dripping blood. Headless poultry hanging. Severed tongues piled. Rows of hearts, livers, brains. She staggered forward, eyes glazed, deeper into the meat market. Convoluted twists and turns carried her on through swarms of buzzing flies, between racked carcasses lining the passages. She was jostled by hungry figures haggling over the meat, mouths shouting as they jabbed fingers at the raw red cuts.

She was lost in the maze, gagging in the reek of blood. She stumbled past slashing knives, muscle and guts tossed on the scales, thrown dripping over the heads of the buyers to be wrapped. She came up short, staring at trestles of twisted pale intestines, numbly tracing the convoluted kinks until someone pushed her aside. She tried to find a way out, but the passages kept turning and twisting back on themselves. Voices shrilled, ringing in her ears, and she could hear the distant shouts of her pursuers.

The flecked white walls swayed, closing in. She looked up, straining for escape, stretching for the distant rafters and a thin slice of sunlight shimmering through them. Grisly joke high overhead, crucified on a butcher’s hook, a life-sized pink naked baby doll smirked down at her.

Ariadne screamed her fear and confusion, exhaustion and despair, up at that empty leering face.

More faces turned toward her—accusing eyes and mouths—and she was running again, tripping, hands scrabbling over the slippery stained floor, scrambling up to run on.


And, yes, at the time of my visit there really was a baby doll impaled on a butcher’s hook overhead. Join me next Saturday as we visit the Ancient Agora and then pack up for our next destination: the fabulous island of Rhodes!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.


[syndicated profile] captainawkward_feed

Posted by JenniferP

Putting this behind a cut given the “Guy In Your Office Who Gives Weird Backrubs And Ends Every Sentence With ‘That’s What She Said’ Is Totally #IBelieveYou About Your #MeToo Social Media Posts” and “Pretty Much Every Movie You Loved In The 1990s Is Now Kinda Gross To Think About” week we’ve had.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a lady who has been friends with this guy for about a decade. He moved away to a nearby city a few years ago for post doc work so most of our conversations are through WhatsApp and Skype. A couple times a year we’ll visit and sleep on each other’s couches. We’re both unattached hetero-ish opposite gendered folk, but I have talked about how I’m basically asexual and never looking for anyone and he’s looking for someone to marry and have babies with. So that’s been discussed while neatly avoiding the ‘I’m not into you like that’ more direct conversation. We have always just been normal friends who are friends. I really like hiking, and he’s one of my only friends who shares that hobby so it’s something we’ve also done a lot together. A decade. No issues.

We went on a weekend camping/hiking trip this summer, and on one of the days we trekked out to a beach that happened to be clothing optional. He asked me if I was OK with him being naked. I said that while I would rather be clothed myself, I didn’t mind in the context of our hanging out sunbathing and reading our respective books at a nude beach if he’d rather ‘run free’. Since then, he’s casually WhatsApp’d me a few articles that tangentially relate to nudism. It’s clearly on his mind. “Look-these Germans are totally fine with going to the sauna naked with co-workers!” Neat. “Hey, have you seen this BBC article about naked co-ed swimming pools in Poland? It’s nice they’re comfortable about perfectly natural human bodies.” Sure, that’s cool. “Isn’t it terrible how clothing is used as such a marker of class and social difference?” I guess that’s true. Why are we so weird about bodies? But also, I like my tyranny of clothing?

Then I went out for another visit. Crashed on the couch as ever. Everything perfectly non sexual. We talked philosophy, pop culture, politics, hiking, the usual. In the morning I was getting ready to leave and he came out of the shower while I was packing up. “Do you have the bus schedule?” I asked, and as he checked the times he just fully removed his towel-one-Mississippi-two-excruciating-Mississippi-before tucking it back around his waist. I averted my eyes in panic and then said nothing, because, well, you’re the Captain of Awkward. You know.

He moved apartments just after our trip, and I’d been asking to see what his new place looked like. “Give me the virtual tour!” I suggested. He WhatsApp’d back a five minute video. Wow, it does have great lighting! And there he is casually narrating how great the appliances are here and the closet space is there, and 4 minutes in, in full view of the mirrored closet doors but not looking at them, he’s just totally naked. Dick a swinging. OK, I thought. Plausible deniability… it was a heat wave. Maybe he wasn’t thinking about the mirrors? Maybe he was, and he’s just chill with the human body? I can’t be chill this way. But I said nothing. Pretended that wasn’t in there. “Love the counter-tops” I wrote.

A few weeks have gone by. Conversations on WhatsApp are normal. “Maybe we can do more camping and hiking next summer?” he asked. Maybe. A few days ago I sent him some photos of a new hiking bag I’d gotten. He’d been shopping too. “And on sale because it’s end of season!” declared the caption on a perfectly innocuous photo: a box of new hiking boots on his living room floor. I scrolled past it and replied “Those look way better than the old ones, how much?” And so it went. We move on to other topics. Politics. Hikes. OK, maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with this situation. Things are… fine? But going back through the photos today, I clicked on the boots image this time to see them better and there, in the now fully expanded view on my phone, was his dick. Just hanging out in the bottom corner of the image. NothingwrongwithbodiesbutcomeONadickisnotahandoraknee….WHAT DO.

Lest I make you do the summarizing work yourself, here is a less full-picture but probably sufficient TLDR alternative:

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a lady whose close decade long platonic friendship with a dude has taken an awkward turn. He lives out of town now, so we mostly communicate online with the odd visit to one another’s respective city. We both share a passion for hiking. We stopped by a clothing optional beach when hiking earlier in the year, and he asked if I was cool if he took advantage and let it all hang out whilst we sunbathed. I said that was fine, though I was gonna carry on wearing my clothes and enjoying my book. Since then he’s sent me a number of ‘isn’t nudism/naturism? great’ articles. OK, fine. What even are bodies anyway. The menace of class expression through clothing and the joy of non sexual naked bodies has been a recurring theme in his recent ‘check out this news link’ communication.

When I crashed at his place during my most recent visit, he let his towel slip for a moment too long after getting out of the shower, but I said nothing. A few weeks later he sent me a video tour of his new apartment where four minutes in he’s just casually and totally naked in the reflection of his mirrored closet doors. Just for a short few seconds. There was a heat wave. He’s maybe a nudist/naturist now? I was uncomfortable but pretended it didn’t happen. Now this week we exchanged innocuous ‘cool new hiking gear purchases!’ photos. But I realized upon expanding the shot of his hiking boots that his footwear was photo bombed by his dick. It’s autumn. There is no heat wave. Nudism surely does not equal what feels like stealth dick pics. WHAT DO? :/

Hi there! I included both the longer version and the TL;dr because you summed it up so well in both.

So, your friend is exploring nudism. Many people in the world are into that. There are clubs, days, events, hikes, bike rides, runs, online communities, resorts, and an entire Wikipedia page for “nude recreation.” Your friend can be free-falling and free-balling in the great outdoors as long as he a) finds like-minded people (i.e. not you) and b) he respects certain limits.

Speaking of limits, your friend is testing yours by repeatedly showing you his bathing suit area. He started with “accidentally-on-purpose” towel drops and escalated to “Oh hai, my apartment tour has some very special features!” Not cool. The chances that the hiking boots were accidentally photobombed by his junk approach .001%., though to be clear I don’t actually care if it was an accident.

We could spend a lot of time discussing his intentions, does he MEAN IT-mean it like, in a sexual way, or is it just part of his new lifestyle and he’s really comfortable with you vs. is he trying to be creepy/provocative, is it just a mistake where he thought because he asked you that one time that it’s okay forever,  is it just that he’s too shy/socially awkward to ask you about it again (though somehow not too shy to do it). And, why stop at “shy/socially awkward” as descriptors? Why not dive into his entire psychological makeup and history for explanations so we can find a diagnosis that would make this somehow less his fault? Or, we could try to separate a clear pattern of behavior into totally unique isolated incidents that definitely do not have anything to do with each other and definitely do not have anything to do with gender or misogyny or culture. We could write it all off as probably “harmless,” we could discuss body positivity and why are people so weird about a little bit of nudity it’s not all sexual/why are we making it that way with our dirty minds and narrow-minded upbringing, are we some kind of prudes or something? We could do the 1,000 other absurd, exhausting mental and emotional gymnastics where we deep-dive into the intentions and feelings of men and try to find the most reasonable, gentle, benefit-of-the-doubt approach that won’t startle them or make them feel bad for even a second about the things they do to women.

I think there are two questions women can ask themselves when a man does something that creeps them out that are way better than “but did he MEAN IT-mean it”:

  1. Does he do this behavior to other men? Do his dad or his boss or his male buddy have to say “Whoa dude, consider the pants” when they chat with him?
  2. Do we think he’s doing even a tenth of the emotional labor in this situation that you are? 1/100th? 1/1000th?

This week has felt like a century. I don’t know about y’all but I’m done with doing this much work around men behaving badly.

Here are the facts:

1) Your friend repeatedly exposed himself to you.

2) You don’t like it and you want it to stop.

That’s enough. That’s enough to block him from your life if you want to without any further communication or work on your part. It’s enough to change whole story to “I had this really lovely friend for 10 years but then it got weird between us and we’re not friends anymore.”

It’s certainly enough to send him a text that says: “Can you make sure to put on clothes if we’re going to video-chat? Thanks.

See also:

  • “Can you make 100% sure that your penis doesn’t show up in photos you share with me, thanks.”
  • I’m glad you’re enjoying all that. I don’t really like reading or talking about it with you, so you should find someone else to send these articles to.”
  • Also, while we’re talking, that hiking day at the clothing optional beach was a one-time thing for me, please opt for pants when we’re talking or hanging out in the future.”
  • I don’t like that.” = Good general script for unwanted nudes.

If your friend has sad or embarrassed feelings about what he’s done…okay? Good? He should feel some awkwardness about making his friend so uncomfortable? He should be the one writing to advice columnists right now about how he’s really into this new hobby and he’s afraid and uncomfortable about maybe fucking up a great friendship by getting carried away with it and constantly showing her his penis, so, how can he apologize and how can he make it right.

Honestly, if you tell him to knock this off, “I’m really sorry I made you uncomfortable” + STOPPING THE BEHAVIOR AND DROPPING THE SUBJECT IMMEDIATELY & FOREVER = is pretty much the only acceptable reaction from him. If he gives you an iota of pushback about this, your friendship is probably over. “Wait, did you think I was harassing you? I was just enthusiastic about my fun hobby!” = “Cool story. But now you know that I don’t like it, so, STAHP.”

If that pushback becomes about how this is all your fault somehow, like “But you said it was okay that day when we were hiking, it’s not fair for you to change the rules on me now” or  “I didn’t think you were such a prude,” we’ve crossed over into friendship-is-over-with-extreme-prejudice territory. “It was an accident and I didn’t mean it, but, also, it was all the woman’s fault since I reasonably and objectively assumed she liked it” is not how great guys who are safe to be around talk when they get busted for behaving badly.

I’m so sorry, this sucks and none of it is your fault. Neither his penis nor his feelings are your work to manage.






[syndicated profile] graphicmedicineweek_feed

Posted by NoetheMatt

Note: This is a double-issue, as I was too sick last week to do much of anything.

Other Note: Posts from Friday, 10/20/17 will be included in next week’s post. I will be at a conference that entire day! 

‘This Week in Graphic Medicine’ highlights relevant articles (and tweets) about comics in medicine published during the week (Saturday – Friday). Links are typically presented without commentary, unless clarification of relevance is necessary, with credit given to those who flagged them up where possible. So without further ado…

Special Content…

Our friend and colleague Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer), and his family, lost their home in the California fires this month. He has been chronicling this… experience, though that word feels too small, both in regular updates on Facebook and through this series of comics about discovering the destruction. You can see those comics here.

Numerous news outlets have picked up on Brian’s ability to capture the humanity often lost in the sheer devastation of disaster and have sought out interviews. As many of those links as I can find are just below.

California Illustrator Creates Comic Strip To Process Losing His Home To Wildfire

When he lost his home to fire, Brian Fies started drawing

He lost his home to the wildfire and poured his pain into a web comic

Santa Rosa cartoonist draws ‘a dispatch from the front’ after his house burns down

Articles & More… 

Event: Comics and Medicine Panel @ MICE 2017

A blog and single-question interview preview of this panel!

Event: Oct 21st, a Halting Talk on “My Degeneration” at Providence Hospital via @dunlapshohl

Event: Oakley Memorial Lecture in Medicine and the Arts

This happened last week and sadly was not fully recorded. Luckily however there are a few interviews worth a look!

Professor Susan Squier

Professor Margrit Shildrick

Academic Career Advice

Event: Pulp Culture Comics Arts Festival and Symposium via @CartoonStudies

Event (Library): Dana is starting a Graphic Medicine Book Club!

Webcomic: Puerto Rico: Should I State or Should I Go? via @TheNib

Mostly political, but the implications for healthcare are quite direct. 

Webcomic: The Art of War via @TheNib

This isn’t medical much – but it is distinctly human. A look at how we experience the “fine arts” explored through comics. I couldn’t NOT include it here. 

Webcomic: Public Service Announcement via @TheNib

Webcomic: Gone Missing via @TheNib

Webcomic: The Trouble With Teleportation via @TheNib

Webcomic: PD Pundit – Early Warning via @dunlapshohl

Webcomic: Other Barriers via Oh Joy Sex Toy (NSFW)

Webcomic: Choose Your Own Sexual Assault Adventure! via @TheNib

Blog: Exploring Hunger and Graphic Medicine with MEDstudio@JEFF and Design Philadelphia via @NoetheMatt

Blog: In Our Own Words: A Challenge to Share Our Own Stories

Blog: My Graphic Medicine Journey (Part One) via @performillness

Comics and Medicine: Part 2 via @AngelesInst

Scholarly (Book Review): Using a Nurse’s Graphic Medicine Memoir to Help Students Learn about HIV/AIDS via @dawessner

Scholarly: Integration of Graphic medicine in teaching Pharmacology to Optometry students

Scholarly: “Koko et les lunettes magiques”: An educational entertainment tool to prevent parasitic worms and diarrheal diseases in Côte d’Ivoire.

Scholarly: Frankenstein by Kriota Willberg. Fall 2017 Intima

Scholarly: Neurological Exam by Eugenia G. Amor. Fall 2017 Intima

Guide: How to teach technical concepts with cartoons via @MedNarrative

Zine: Trans and Disabled via @pfanderson

Book Review: “Ink in Water” Illustrates A Powerful Journey of Eating Disorder Recovery via @metageeky

Book Review: Un Adios Especial via @GraficaMedicina

Book Review: Take it as a Compliment via @Ink_Mag_UK

Book Review: Cancer Humor via @pfanderson

Interview: Sweet Revenge: An Interview with Thi Bui

Interview: Parables of Care: A Q&A with Simon Grennan

Interview: The Facts of Life: an Interview with Paula Knight

Upcoming Project: All Is Not Well – Comics About Care

Latest Comic: I See You

Mental Health Awareness on Broken Frontier

Relating Through Story – An Effective Way to Connect with Your Audience

Anime hero joins Japan’s antibiotics resistance campaign

Lighter Than My Shadow Named Best Book of the Month by Amazon

Readers on Parables of Care via @ErnestoPriego

Graphic Novels 101: A Guide For Implementing Comics In An Elementary Classroom

Professional Day at the Comic Con

NYCC Talks Graphic Sex: Comics, New Media, And The Queering Of Sex Education

NYCC News: First Second to Make Maker Comics

OUT TODAY: Panel Power, CBLDF’s New Resource for Parents, Educators, Librarians, and Retailers!

We Need to Talk About Rape Culture: ‘Speak: The Graphic Novel’

‘It’s time to recognise the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing’


Some great stuff this week! Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below or tweet @NoetheMatt! Until next time…

The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

Oct. 20th, 2017 07:00 am
[syndicated profile] strangehorizons_feed

Posted by K. Kamo

There's a lot to like about Nicky Drayden's first novel, The Prey of Gods, a lively urban fantasy set in a near-future South Africa. It bears some comparison to Lauren Beukes's Zoo City (2010), and, much as that novel won its author the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2011, I wouldn't be surprised to see Drayden on a few “best debut” lists come the end of the year. Here and now, however, she's given us a world in which, instead of Beukes's magical animal familiars externalizing the characters' guilt, everyone has robotic “alphies” as their helpmeets. These robots are just beginning to become self-aware, and many are not so happy with how they've been treated.

The alphies are not the only ones embarking on journeys of individual emergence; there's a revolving cast of POV characters, each of whom, we very quickly learn, is hiding from the people around them a more traditionally internalized guilty secret. There's Muzikayise, star fly-half for his school rugby team, who harbors a crush on one of his teammates; Wallace Stoker, cismale politician by day and transgender cabaret act by night; and Riya, an incandescent pop diva concealing her MS from everyone but her drug dealer. In amongst these more mortal characters mingle Sydney, an ancient demigoddess reduced to slumming it as a nail bar employee, and the newly deified Nomvula, an eight-year-old with all the fresh reserves of power Sydney now lacks.

It further transpires that while Sydney and Nomvula are connecting with their inner goddesses, all of humanity is in fact descended from Earth's original deities. When a new designer drug called godsend appears on the scene it activates long-dormant aspects of its users' divinities, allowing individuals to manifest to other users as crabs and dolphins (this will make more sense later), while also giving them access to abilities such as telepathy and memory erasure. Sydney is the main antagonist, and she concocts a plan to spread a virus to make people even more susceptible to the drug. Nomvula is quickly swept into her thrall, and the other characters find themselves more or less unwittingly ranged against her. Throw in some mecha fights and genetic engineering gone wrong and it's fair to say there's a lot going on.

“Oh, man,” says Muzi. “This is bladdy sick.”

“Hey, Piece of Shit,” Elkin calls to his alphie. “Play artist Riya.”

The alphie obliges. Ambient music from one of the tracks from Riya Natrajan's latest album, Midnight Seersucker, fills the room. The discordant beats cut right to the soul, and her shrill voice sounds like a couple of tomcats in a blender, but oh man does it hit the spot. Muzi claps his claws to the rhythm of the snare drum, and just when he gets it down pat, his arms and hands become his own. (p. 8)

The prose is that most surprisingly controversial of things: “readable.” It trips along in a breezy manner which doesn't demand too much of the reader but which I really enjoyed—enough, even, to allow for sentences like, “Riya Natrajan goes to putty in his arms, damn him and his rugged masculinity” (p.170). While this is an absolute stinker of a line, and the writing not infrequently flirts with cliché, for the most part Drayden manages to avoid inadvertent eye rolls from the reader. Much of this is down to the obvious sincerity of the narration; it's not interested in playing wider games with irony or metatextual commentary, simply in being an exciting story well told. Simple, of course, is not the same as easy.

Much of the most convincing narration comes as Drayden (re)tells her world's creation myth. As far as I can make out, she's built this from scratch, and it certainly ticks all the necessary boxes: epic imagery; elision of the superlative and mundane; supernatural folly, hope, and redemption:

Each time I nearly died but was saved in the nick of time by a dolphin, then a rat, then a serpent, then an eagle. After six thousand years, I had six thousand children, each and every one with the power of gods. Those descended from the eagle could fly, and those from the peacock had beauty that made the others weep … I took pity on my crab children. They became my favorites, and I granted them each the power to bend others to their will. (pp. 93-4)

The language for these sections is more suitably portentous, but the generally chatty tone still creeps through (“in the nick of time” ) and is one of a number of things which in sum mean that The Prey of Gods feels a lot like YA. It's written in the present tense (though I recognize that thinking of this as “stereotypically YA” might be a personal foible), while the two characters with whom we spend the most time (Muzi and Nomvula) are respectively a teenager and a child forced to accept responsibilities beyond their years. All of the main characters have one (and only one) Big Secret which they hide before obtaining a more mature perspective and learning to accept who they really are, and thus every character arc is effectively a coming of age story—even that of the fully-grown politician with aspirations for the premiership, who must throw off the yoke of their controlling mother's expectations and be proud of their true self.

Feeling like YA is neither a positive nor a negative for any book, necessarily, but the deployment of some of its core tropes here is often quite unsubtle. Of course all stories, and genre stories especially, utilize tropes to some degree, but The Prey of Gods relies on them to do a noticeable amount of heavy lifting. It's perhaps no coincidence that I found the creation myth sections among the more successful, in that stories of this type are our oldest, tropiest of all. Creating one “from scratch” is in truth nigh on impossible, but their universality gives the writer license to openly rework clichés and well-worn patterns—license that doesn't extend so clearly to the rest of the book, where the borrowings are less narratively justified.

As a whole the book is diverting, entertaining, and somewhat rough around the edges. This roughness manifests in a few ways beyond the reliance on tropes, most obviously the short chapter length (there are fifty-nine spread across the book's 380 pages). This trick is often used with the aim of keeping the pace high and the pages turning, but its effect here was the opposite, chopping up the overarching plotline and slowing its development. As the close third-person narration is constantly rotating perspectives, we're with each character so briefly before jumping to another that it takes most of the book for any of them to establish themselves as individuals, and thus people with journeys worth caring about. This in turn is exacerbated by the authorial voice, whose easy charm beguiles but also undercuts the severity of what should be some devastating early plot points, and, more pertinently, doesn't vary much according to which of the characters' heads we're in. Sydney as an antagonist also doesn't really convince until the final act (and even then …), which likewise means the story takes a long time to gain momentum. A jump cut every six pages means there's a lot of hanging off not so much cliff—it's more of a staircase, and when the climb is so incremental the fall is much less perilous.

I've fretted more than usual about the balance of this review, because my overall memory of reading The Prey of Gods is that it was enjoyable if familiar fun, yet, as I revisit my notes one by one, I find that most of them are fairly critical. There's a lot to like about the book not least because there's a lot in general; one of its defining features is its eagerness to DO ALL THE THINGS and this cuts both ways. On the one hand, with so much happening there's almost bound to be something for almost every reader to latch on to. A slightly unexpected example was the way rugby cropped up in Muzi's storyline. I played a lot of this at school as well, and while I did wince at a couple of misfires (I can't imagine even the most empathetic of players having a five-minute conversation in the middle of a match to apologise for accidentally hitting a spectator with a ball), the intense camaraderie you feel as a member of a sports team at that age is very convincingly captured. Likewise, despite Riya's unpromising early characterization as Difficult Pop Princess With Sympathetically Tragic Backstory, she eventually emerges as an interesting and engaging character in her own right.

On the other hand, the scattergun approach means you're going to have to accept a number of misses to go with the hits. Rugby etiquette is a comparatively trivial example, and I'm unfortunately unable to speak with similar personal authority to the book's success with the far more consequential issues of LGBT representation. The alphies, however, fulfil the traditional role of robots in SF as a servile underclass on the verge of rebellion. To say that this has added resonance in a near-future South Africa would be an understatement, and yet the implications of this aren't addressed in any meaningful way beyond a general sense that oppression is bad and freedom is good. While the sheer vim of the book's overall execution is an inarguable positive, it would have been no bad thing to sacrifice some of its breadth for greater depth, regarding both theme and character. I've read entire novels successfully built around less than is suggested here of each of the main POV characters, but as Drayden presents them they struggle to rise above their single notes—and there isn't quite enough control to consistently maintain the harmony.

It's not quite tomcats in a blender, but I think ultimately this book, more than most, will stand or fall on whether the reader gets on with its voice, whether they find the overall tone sufficiently melodic to carry the ragged polyphony of characters and plot. For my own part, if not everything about The Prey of Gods worked, then the balance was clearly in the positive. Given the explosion of ideas in her debut novel, Nicky Drayden seems unlikely to run out of things to write about any time soon, which I can only regard as a good thing.

New Worlds: Mourning

Oct. 20th, 2017 01:00 pm
[syndicated profile] book_view_cafe_feed

Posted by Marie Brennan

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Although the question of what a society does with the bodies of the deceased is a key part of the funerary process, it’s hardly the whole story. After all, mourning is as much or more about the living as the dead, with a variety of customs designed to protect them from the spirits of the departed or help them through their grief.

These customs can kick in right away. Several different traditions say you should cover any mirrors in the house where a person has died, either to avoid catching glimpses of the evil spirits attracted by death, or to prevent the spirit of the deceased from being caught in the image. Similarly, you might open the windows in the room where the person died in order to permit the spirit’s departure. Some societies mandate that a body should be taken out of the house through a window or an opening cut into the wall, to prevent the ghost from finding its way back through the door; this is similar to the idea of carrying the body out feet-first, so it won’t look back and beckon someone else to follow (thus leading to another death). Death is a liminal moment, a crossing of the boundaries between life and the afterlife, so it’s unsurprising that there would be many practices to guard against the associated dangers.

For those left behind, there is the process of mourning itself. Modern American expectations tend toward quiet dignity, with the bereaved keeping their composure as best as possible while someone gives a eulogy, but that’s hardly universal; in other societies mourning is expected to be demonstrative and loud. People tear their clothing, weep freely, wail, keen, and more. Withholding such behaviors would be an insult to the departed — a sign that you don’t really care. In fact, the demonstration of grief might be so important that you hire professional mourners to supplement the display.

Which approach is “better”? I suspect it depends on the society and the individual in question. Maintaining your composure in the face of profound loss can be incredibly difficult . . . but so can forcing yourself into the ostentatious performance of grief, especially if the deceased is someone you personally loathed.

Personal feelings often have no bearing on the formal customs of mourning, though. Many societies mandate who has to mourn (in the sense of performing specific practices) based on the degree and nature of kinship to the departed. In Judaism, for example, the key figures are related within one degree: parents, children, siblings, and spouses. These are the people expected to sit shiva, i.e. observe a fixed seven-day mourning period. By contrast, strict Confucian ideology sometimes forbade anyone to mourn the death of an immature child, because it was considered wrong for people to show such honor and respect to someone beneath them in the hierarchy: it’s supposed to flow from child to parent, not the other way around. Christian communities might forbid mourning suicides, because of their unabsolved sin. Shifting to the far end of the spectrum, the death of a monarch or other major public figure might require entire communities to go into mourning.

Because the formal practice is based on social circumstances rather than emotion, it often persists for a set period of time, as with the aforementioned shiva. Victorian society required much lengthier observance of mourning, at least among the upper classes. Men got off relatively easy, marking their grief with black gloves, hatbands, or armbands, but women had it much harder. Although practice varied through the nineteenth century, widows were expected to be in mourning for something like two years, only lightening to “half-mourning” (with clothes in lavender, grey, or black pinstripe) toward the end.

And that was just for deceased husbands. There were also set mourning periods for parents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, first cousins, in-laws, and even the in-laws of married children. It’s no wonder that some women opted never to come out of mourning clothes: purchasing all the necessary garments and accessories was a significant financial burden, with no guarantee you wouldn’t have to put them right back on a week after you took them off. (Of course not everyone would have observed all the niceties for the full length of time; whenever you hear about a cultural practice like this, you always have to remember that what is expected and what people actually do can be quite different.)

Some societies have required even more stringent responses to loss, especially for widows. In East Asia they might be expected to shave their heads and begin life as Buddhist nuns after their husbands pass. In some parts of India, widows similarly move to temples and spend the remainder of their lives begging for alms. The practice of sati was even more extreme, with widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres — theoretically of their own free will. But there’s no illusion of free will in the ancient tombs we find around the world, where dead rulers were put to rest surrounded by the bodies of sacrificed wives, slaves, horses, and more.

As with quiet versus ostentatious grieving, formal mourning (of the non-lethal variety) has both its good sides and its bad. People in that state are often not expected to carry out all their usual tasks, which can give them some desperately-needed respite, and a structured transition back to normal life can be a source of comfort and assistance — better than being caught in the limbo of not knowing when it’s socially acceptable to move on. On the other hand, being barred from participating in normal activities, especially the fun ones that might lighten your spirit, can make the experience of loss more crushing, and the formal return to daily routine might come far too late — or far too soon.

Finally, there’s the material culture of death. Tombs, gravestones, and other markers of the final resting place provide a focal point for mourning, as do memorial tablets or ancestral altars in the home. It’s been common for millennia to bury people with grave goods, for reasons ranging from utility in the afterlife, to demonstration of the dead person’s importance, to taboos that prohibit any living person from continuing to use those items. Other things are made for the use of the bereaved: going back to the Victorians and their obsession with mortality, you find commemoration of the deceased taking the shape of locks of hair, portraits of the dead, photographs of same (either resting peacefully or posed as if they were still alive), and more. Death masks might be sculpted images made for the coffin, as you see in Egyptian burials, or wax or plaster casts taken directly from the corpse, kept around after burial.

This really only scratches the surface of mourning customs. In the Chinese TV show Nirvana in Fire (aka Lang ya bang), there’s a plot point built around one of the characters avoiding the direct use of the hanzi from his deceased parents’ names. There are also all the rituals that may come after death — but those often have to do with the afterlife, which will be our topic next week.

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It Doesn't Care

Oct. 20th, 2017 05:11 am
[syndicated profile] rollingaroundinmyhed_feed

Posted by Dave Hingsburger

I'd just finished a really good breakfast at one of the eateries in the airport and were preparing to get up and go to the gate. I asked Joe if he wouldn't mind, I always finish first, if I rolled back to the accessible washroom to ensure the tanks were dry before getting on the wee plane. He just happily continued on with his breakfast then as I took off.

I had just come to the door of the accessible room, one of those separate from either the men's or women's bathroom, when the door opened. A non-disabled man stepped out of the washroom and as soon as he saw me he was full of apologies. But none was necessary, he was a transgender man and I knew that for him, this bathroom meant the same as it did for me, a safe place to go when you need to go. It broke my heart that he couldn't simply go to the bathroom that matched his gender. I don't know why he made the choice he did, safety probably, but there may have been other reasons as well.

He was explaining that he knew the washroom was primarily for disabled people but that he had chosen to use the washroom because, and here his voice faltered. Just for a moment he couldn't speak. Just for a moment I saw how hard the world he lived in was. Just for a moment I got a glimpse of the weight of prejudice that he carried on his shoulders. Just for a moment.

All I said was, "The best thing about these bathrooms is that the toilet doesn't care who pees in it." He looked at me, and I knew he saw a cisgender man of a seasoned age, disabled or not, he couldn't predict how I would see him or react to him being in 'my' bathroom.

But it's not my bathroom.

Is it?

And I wanted him to know that. I know what it's like to have people deny me the space I need. I know what it's like for people to wish me away from public space at all. Disability reveals people's character almost instantly. It's possible to really learn the depth of people's prejudice and anger at the mere idea of difference. So I don't understand what he experiences on a day to day basis but I know what I do - and that gives hint enough.

He thanked me for understanding. I thanked him for his thanks but turned it down. "The world would be a better place if we all just learned to share space, don't you think? That's all I did, and you don't have to thank me for it."

"The toilet doesn't care, does it?" he said and laughed a bit.

"Well, when I sit on it, it complains a little," I said, "but no, it doesn't care."

"Take care of yourself," he said.

"You too," I said.

My the world, one day, be safe for all of us.

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