Author Archives: Melissa Walshe

A Gif is Worth 61 Words

I’ve been thinking a lot about facial expressions this year, while I crank through my spree of annual productivity, and what I’ve decided is that gifs are popular for a really good reason: they capture subtle expressions that do not translate well to print.

“He did that thing where you’re already kind of smiling, and you smile a bit wider with half of your face for just a fraction of a second, but which isn’t a smirk, because smirking implies a sardonic intent, and the tiny movements of the skin around his eyes indicated that he was, in fact, delighted with what she had said.”

Or, you know, this:

They’ve translated Moby Dick into emojis…I guess it’s only a matter of time before people start translating literature into gifs.

Alien Cuisine

November tends to go like this for me:

Nov. 1: Let’s do this crazy thing!
Nov. 3: Why did I decide to do this to myself?
Nov. 10: In the zone, WOOOOO!
Nov. 10 (later): Oh god. I just spotted something that’s going to be a royal pain in the ass for fix.
Nov. 11: It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…this is why editing takes two years.
Nov. 12-28: Sleep is optional, right?
Nov. 29: DONE, SUCKERS!
Dec. 1: Oh god. Two years isn’t going to be enough to edit this time. What have I done to myself?

And right on schedule, my punchlist of things to fix is getting crazy. Quick reminder for you other sci-fi forces: gravity is acceleration. That has consequences for how you imagine the technology of a spaceship that has to accelerate to FTL speeds. #needmesomeintertialdampeners #doh

The more complicated thing that I haven’t decided on whether or not to change, however, is food. My “space hobbit” world is intended to evoke a vague sense of Middle Earth while being completely independent. My characters are undeniably humanoid, but they aren’t human. If Earth existed in the wider universe, it would be a planet they could travel to and inhabit with minimal discomfort, but they would not be able to interbreed with humans. Given that my main character is a hobbit, she spends a fair amount of time eating. I don’t linger on the food descriptions, because that would bore me witless, but I do drop names of dishes or foods in passing.

And here’s the thing: I started out using normal Earth foods without thinking about it. She eats donuts and coffee and potatoes and curry and sandwiches and berries and oatmeal and so on. But as I got thinking about it, people seem to love the alienness of food in sci-fi sometimes. If my character is eating food labeled with a familiar name, does it ruin the feel of the story for you?

I talked through this with John, and he thinks I’ve got to go with alien foods and spend time describing them. I think that’s even more problematic because it doesn’t make sense for my narrator and it kills the ability of the reader to connect with her through the shared experience of familiar foods. We hashed out a couple of possible ways to handle this:

1. Pull a Neal Stephenson and just hang a lantern on it.

In Anathema, Stephenson wrote a note saying that he was using human names to approximate the alien foods. A potato isn’t a potato: it’s the biological and/or cultural equivalent of a potato for those aliens.

Pros

  • I don’t have to change all the food stuff I’ve written so far.
  • Readers can connect to the character through food, grasping the emotional sense of the moment more effectively.

Cons

  • The explanatory note is a little poncy, especially for this particular book.
  • Some potential fans might still be grumpy at me for not giving them alien foods.

2. Go full-alien on this book.

I could make every single food completely alien, describing things that matter and just making it clear that it’s food where it doesn’t.

Pros

  • The sci-fi purists would be happy.
  • Fans would have goofy things to turn into recipes and cosplay fun.

Cons

  • That is an editing nightmare and I don’t want to do it.
  • This would demand a huge amount of time describing food from a narrator who actively makes fun of her people’s obsession with describing food.
  • I would have to keep track of every forking food I dream up for world-building purposes.

3. And then there’s the hybrid solution.

What I think I’m leaning towards is using generic human words for types of preparation (soup, sandwich, porridge, curry, bread, etc.) but come up with alien foods for the constituent parts in some places. So a porridge isn’t oatmeal, it’s a red-grain porridge. I can be specific when it’s useful to the scene and vague when the food is serving a more functional part in the scene.

Pros

  • Sci-fi purists would be pacified. (John’s belief, as a purist.)
  • Fans would have goofy foods to play with.
  • I can balance the alienness with a need to connect foods to reader experiences.
  • It doesn’t threaten my approach to the narrator’s perspective on food.

Cons

  • Still an editing nightmare, maybe more so than option #2.
  • Still a world-building hassle, but less so than option #2.

I think where I’ve landed is that I just have to suck it up and go with option #3, but what do you think? Is it ever okay and not annoying for an author to use human food terminology in a story written from an alien perspective?

 

 

And we’re off!

November again. Insane writing month again. This, of course, means more procrastination blogs for everyone! The goal this month is to write the second half of The Hero Journey of Lola Avelia Stubbins XII. Wish me luck, and have a little sneak peek at a bit of what I wrote last year, with apologies for the weird formatting.

Excerpt from The Hero Journey of Lola Avelia Stubbins XII

Stub spilled gracelessly into the corridor, bowled over by the weight of her pack. “Pint and pissers,” she swore. Spaceships may have been engineered mostly by dwoles, but they were staffed primarily by the much taller gorgs and silfs and nomons, and the scale made it obvious.
“Whoa, steady on.” A hand reached down to help her up.
Stub jerked her arm away and felt immediately abashed. She looked up…she always looked up… at her rescuer. “Thanks, but I’m fine.”
“That’s an understatement if I ever heard one,” the grable said. Black hair shimmering with the iridescence of an oil slick fell over a gleaming emerald complexion to frame a lascivious stare.”You’re not fine: you’re a fox.”
Stub could feel her skin pinking. Her eyes traveled back down the ropy arms exposed by his loose workout jumper. She swallowed. “Umm…thanks?”
He laughed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be flirting with you while you’re in uniform. That’s gonna get me busted back down to ensign one of these days. But didn’t the sarge let you know you can use the lifts? You barely clear a meter. There’s a minimum height rule in the accessibility guidelines.”
Stub pulled herself upright and met his gaze. She did not inform him that the sergeant had, in fact, glossed over that useful piece of information. Still… “My height isn’t a handicap. I don’t need special treatment.”
He held up a hand, palm out. “I respect that.”
Stub forced a smile. “Sorry. I’ve taken half a dozen cracks about my size between docking and here. Truth be told, I am going to need to increase the upper body work in my calisthenics routine to get out of those tubes any way but face-first.”
“That’s the spirit.” He grinned. “The tall folks think it’s funny to haze the new wee ones and they’re generally too smart to get caught by a senior officer. But most of ‘em aren’t that bad once you get to know ‘em. Hang in there.”
The grable punched her shoulder and scooched past her to swing gracefully up into the tube she had just fallen out of. “See you around, Fox.”
Stub’s mouth worked too slowly and she ended up speaking to the closed hatch. “See you around.”
She spun slowly on one heel, breathing in deeply as she considered the arrows on the numbered signs and found her direction. “Oh no you don’t, Lola Avelia Stubbins. This is a short-term assignment and you’re on thin ice here as it is. Don’t even think about it.”
She couldn’t help but think about it…him. Even if the grable’s interest was only the stereotypical grable willingness to screw anything with a pulse…well. Even by grable standards, that one was a looker. And it had been a very, very long time.
That thought deflated her bubble of sensuous daydream in a lark’s minute. The reason, she reminded herself, that it had been so long since she’d had a good tumble wasn’t likely to change. Shirlings were not broadly popular as a race for reasons that went beyond height, and as soon as any of her shipmates picked up on her real name, she could count on becoming the same thing she’d been everywhere she’d gone since college: the scapegoat for the sins of her forebearers.
And those of her, she couldn’t deny it, embarrassingly fanatic relatives who refused to acknowledge that their hero-worshiping version of history was somewhere between dead wrong and aggressively backwards.
Entering her blessedly private quarters, she wasted no time dumping her gear out of the duffle and into the footlocker. Organizing it into the null-g webbing would have to wait until after her meeting, but she needed a fresh uniform and her shower kit post-haste. An unwelcome leatherbound book fell out of the bottom of her bag, landing on her unmentionables with no sense of decency. Not that her underwear were indecent: it was that damn book.
“Thinking of fanatic relatives,” she sighed. She had told her mother she didn’t want it, but she had said Stub was being unreasonable. As if a junior lieutenant’s footlocker on a working spaceship was a reasonable place to store a historical artifact and family heirloom. Stub had taken it out of her bag three times before she got out the door, but apparently Mam had got the final word in. “Serve her right if I incinerate the blasted thing,” she growled.
Stub shoved the book to the very bottom of her locker and grabbed what she needed to clean up. Disposing of her namesake’s journal would have to wait.

Be Like Luna

I’ve been watching the #MeToo tweets and Facebook posts with a heavy heart, not only because it’s tough to read what people have been through, but it’s tough knowing a lot of horrible stories that haven’t been shared and having to acknowledge that what we’re seeing still only scratches the surface of the problem. It’s also tough knowing that some survivors can’t handle being on social media right now because the callback to their own trauma is not bearable. What we’re seeing? It’s not even close to the worst of the problem.

I’ve been wondering what to say, what to suggest. Make bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir required high school reading? Consent isn’t complicated. It is, however, complicated to build a world in which enough men actually internalize the idea having sex without a partner’s engaged, continuing consent makes them rapists and that pushing your unwanted sexual attention on a person is assault. It’s more complicated than it should be, but there you have it, and words are cheap when it comes to offering comfort and hope to every woman who has ever almost wept with relief behind the wheel of her car to have made it through a dark parking lot unharmed.

All I have got for you is this: an analysis (tongue slightly in cheek) of a video of a dog who sets an example for how to handle yourself if you’ve got more power than someone you have the chance to play with.

Let’s play “Armchair Textual Analyst.”

Luna the Corgi and Simon the Bearded Dragon are playing tug.

Luna: Yay! This is so much fun! Tugging is good!

Simon loses his grip.

Luna: Bows playfully, tail wagging, drops the toy. You still want to play, Simon?

Simon quickly goes after the toy. Luna waits a beat, picks up the other end, and “wins” again. Chews on toy a moment, lets Simon approach and pick it up again.

Luna: We tug because it’s fun. Tugging is not fun if you never win.

Luna drags Simon across the rug a bit, then lets go, circling and chasing and letting Simon “win” a couple of times, but gives Simon a good chance to show his strength, dragging him across the floor.

Luna gets possession of the toy again and runs away, but not very fast, giving Simon time to catch up and latch on again.

Rinse and repeat.

What does Luna know?

Here’s what Luna seems to understand about power and privilege and diversity:

  • You don’t have to look like me or talk like me or move like me to be fun to play with. (Yay for diversity!)
  • What’s most fun for me is what keeps you wanting to play with me. (Yay for enlightened self-interest!)
  • It’s only a fun game if we’re both continuing to have fun. (Yay for seeking engaged consent!)
  • I’ve got some advantages over you in this game, so sometimes I have to check myself to make sure the game stays fun for you so I can continue to enjoy the pleasure of playing with you. (Yay for sharing privilege!)
If Luna gets it, there’s hope it can be taught. Be like Luna.

Guest Appearance on Origin Podcast

Last week I had the great pleasure of chatting with Bryan Aiello, the author of Compounded Interest, for his podcast, “Origin: Stories on Creativity.” He let me go on at length about the relationship between science and magic in the Sidhe Diaries, the mental trauma of being an unwilling superhero, my philosophy of independent publishing, “failing forward” as a writer, and a lot of books written by great writers. Video below; links to his work, mine, and the books we discussed below that.

Links to Bryan’s Work

Links to My Work

Other Books We Discussed

Wonder Woman Rocks My World

I’ve been sitting on this review until I could see Wonder Woman a second time, and to give people time to see it for themselves. But I can’t hold it in anymore: I have to holler my praises to whoever will listen.

I went to Wonder Woman mostly on principle. I wanted to vote with my dollars for more woman-directed, woman-led action blockbusters, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to adore it. I’d heard an interview that pegged Wonder Woman and the male romantic lead as “equals,” and it made me scowl. “So all it takes for a woman to be equal to a man is divine parentage? Great.” Add to that the sex-object costume and the history of the character as emerging from the aggressively male-dominated world of superheroes, and I was ready to have a lot to complain about.

***Spoilers Ahead***

I do have a few complaints. I wanted way more Etta Candy, for starters, and I found the decision to have the German ball in English with German accents to be jarring. But for the first time in my life, I walked out of a superhero movie feeling like much, much more had been gotten gloriously right than wrong.

Let’s start with the costume.

The original motivation for putting Wonder Woman in a skimpy costume was, at a guess, the same reason most women are shoved into stupid outfits: because men generally like to look at the nakedest woman possible. This movie, however, reclaimed Diana’s lack of clothing for herself. The movie begins on her home island, the home of the Amazons, and follows Diana as she fights for the right to train as a warrior. As you observe the stunning combat techniques of the Amazons (who take out a boatload of German soldiers bearing guns with minimal losses, considering the technological gap), it becomes plain that the costume is functional armor designed to prioritize mobility and the protection of the core.

When Diana and Steve land in London, Steve spends a bunch of time aggressively pulling her cape more closely around her and quickly decides that they need to get her into some proper clothes. When she and Etta are looking at corsets, she wonders about the inadequacy of the armor. When she tries on fluffy women’s clothes, she rips one dress trying to kick, and with that simple, simple action, all of women’s “proper” fashion is revealed for exactly what it is: designed to inhibit mobility and make women less physically capable than men.

Diana’s armor is strength and flexibility: socially appropriate women’s wear, in comparison, is effectively an act of physical violence against women.

Speaking of violence against women…

Diana and Steve go to see his bosses, and Steve tells Diana to wait outside. She ignores him, because she hasn’t been raised to see that kind of bullshit as worth noticing, and walks into a room full of politicians and military offices shouting at each other about the armistice. The mere presence of a woman brings the room almost to a dead silence, except for the one man arguing for peace, who takes his chance to be heard. Diana later adds her voice to his, arguing for the cessation of violence. I had to watch the movie again just to really hear her speak, because I was distracted to the point of feeling queasy by Steve’s physical attempt to remove Diana from the room. His arms are all over her in a way that made me want to slap him…something somewhere between controlling and pawing. Not the way that one physically engages with an equal, but the way one engages with someone who has to be controlled with no regard for their autonomy.

That was the first moment I got a little teary, because THAT is being a woman. Having something to say, and being unwelcome in the room. Having something to say, and being physically coerced into silence by your ally, the alleged “Nice Guy.” Having something to say and not getting through to even your willing audience because they’re so distracted by the manner in which everyone else is trying to shut you up.

That was the first moment when I decided Diana is my hero, because she ignores the attempts to silence her. She doesn’t even waste her energy responding to the nonsense of how hard they tried to shut her out. She is too powerful to find their flailings meaningful and too committed to her cause to be sidetracked. As she finally leaves the room, her focus remains strictly on stopping the war and protecting those who are dying.

And when it comes to protecting those who are dying…

My goddess. Let’s talk, for a minute, about the crossing of No Man’s Land.

Sorry. I needed a moment to collect myself, because just thinking of it still brings tears to my eyes. I cried shamelessly as Diana pushed past Steve, discarded her cloak, climbed the ladder, and emerged from the trenches as Wonder Woman for the first time. Diana isn’t just doing something all those soldiers had failed to do for over a year, she isn’t just becoming a symbol of hope for those dying boys and the villagers hiding with them. She is rewriting the rules of the engagement in order to stop human suffering immediately. And because the groundwork had been laid beautifully, the scene serves to underscore the message around gender. The discarding of her cloak, the decision to ignore Steve’s command, the ascent into forbidden territory is the rejection of male efforts to limit or discount or take charge over female strength.

Diana hasn’t changed the system. She hasn’t even really changed the men around her, as we see not much later when Steve tries to bar her from attending a gala. What she has done is made the choice to trust her own skill and strength in order to do what she believes to be the most compassionate choice, regardless of the risk it might pose to her. And that is why I wept to watch her walk unscathed through the gunfire.

Let’s talk about passion vs. knowledge for a second.

There’s an argument that could be made for the foolhardiness of Diana’s choice in that moment. She acts on pure principle, which looks suspiciously like emotion, and with Steve making the logic-backed argument for not moving yet, there’s an uncomfortable dynamic of Feminine Emotion versus Masculine Reason. That’s a dynamic that plagues the relationship between Diana and Steve, and there are moments it edged on being problematic for me. Diana’s lack of knowledge of the world of men and its workings ends up being something between infantilizing where it crops up as ignorance and installing her on a pedestal where it functions to highlight her commitment to her ideals.

There are, however, two reasons why this dynamic ends up working in the long run. First and foremost, the movie pointedly demonstrates how Diana’s mother goes out of her way to keep Diana ignorant of the world and its troubles in order to protect her. Her innocence is a scar of a kind of well-intentioned mental violence that parents often do enact against their daughters: barring a girl from the knowledge she needs to engage in a fight the mother thinks she can’t win. Diana’s innocence/ignorance/blind compassion is another metaphorical reflection of my own experience as a woman, and more than that, it is clearly and intentionally explained at the beginning of the movie which, secondly, is a carefully constructed piece of Diana’s hero’s journey.

What Diana needs in order to defeat Ares is the ability to love the world of men regardless of their flaws: by protecting her from the knowledge of how deeply unworthy humanity is, her mother’s sheltering education leaves Diana nearly crippled in the final battle. She is young in this movie: this is her coming of age story. She began the movie with the uncomplicated and blind compassion of a child and ends it with the knowing compassion of a woman.

What actually opened her eyes?

John and I had very different reads on the end of the movie, where Diana flashes back on the scene in which Steve says goodbye. John thought I would be annoyed, because he read it as Diana finding her motivation because Steve said he loved her. So to John, it looked like the critical catalyst was some old-fashioned man-love. He’s right that that would have annoyed the living daylights out of me if I shared his interpretation, but I don’t. How I read that transitional moment is that Diana’s reflections were more about Steve’s comment that choosing compassion isn’t about the worthiness of the people you have compassion for. His words were underscored by his sacrifice, and it was that combination that lit the fire under her.

The fact that he told Diana he loved her was, as with everything else in the romantic subplot, a mildly distracting footnote. I think the movie would have been stronger without the weird boat conversation about reproduction, the brief makeout scene, and Steve’s declaration of love, but because the romance was so thoroughly on the sidelines of the larger story about two independent people trying, in their own ways, to bring an end to war, that final “I love you” seemed appropriately close to irrelevant. What seemed, to me, to change Diana’s mind was how willing Steve was to give up his life to stop the war, even if the people he was saving weren’t worthy of the sacrifice.

The worthiness of the people saved…

One choice John and I both really loved was the decision to set the movie during World War I, instead of II, as in the original comics. In World War II, there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity to the sides. Nazis were gassing children and old people and dumping their bodies in mass graves: everyone else was trying to put a stop to that. The boys taking off their gas masks at the end of the movie are the nominal “bad guys,” and if they’d been Nazis, it would have been much harder to pull off a scene where people from both sides can share a smile of relief that they’re not dead yet. World War I wasn’t personal or moral: it was a stupid waste of life all around, and that’s a message worth reflecting on, especially in times of high partisan tension in the real world.

That, and the value of art.

The movie begins with a shot of the Louvre and ends there. In the middle of the movie, after the saving of the town, Diana and Steve are dancing…sort of…and Diana says something along the lines of, “So this is what people do when they’re not at war.” Charlie’s singing is hinted at having been buried by his PTSD, and Diana draws it out of him. That’s what Diana is when she’s not fighting war: that’s what love looks like when it’s not forced to expend its strength on saving people.

Saving people vs. killing people

Yet another excellent detail of the movie: when Diana is saving people, she’s not just saving one side from another. She’s primarily saving all people from themselves. Her primary targets are always the heavy artillery and the guns. She deals damage out to people too, but in a lot of her combat, it’s entirely possible that she has dealt incapacitating blows without doing lethal damage. One more fine highlighting of the message that people, no matter how unworthy, need saving from war and that the real enemy is those who actively deny peace its day in the sun.

Love is a wrecking ball

Love-based powers tend to be seen as feminine, and all too often, that turns into tropes where women are the fragile sideline healers. Sure, love can manifest as healing. But when Diana is taking Veld in a whirlwind of divine fury: that’s love too. Love is not soft and weak in this movie: love is a sacred meatshield who brings on the DPS. Crumpled tanks, smashed walls, demolished church steeples: that’s love.

A quick note on diversity beyond gender

Wonder Woman was a brilliant story for me, as a white woman. I think it was trying its best to do well by other groups as well, but I would like to know how less well-represented groups felt it did. The Amazons of Diana’s home were diverse in color and clearly powerful. When Diana was running from a black woman at the beginning of the movie, I was afraid that she was running from a servant, but a line from her mother suggests that the woman was actually her tutor: an educated intellectual superior whose services are valued by Diana’s mother who worries the tutor will quit. The historical context of the movie paired with Diana’s background and the story they were trying to shape for her may have put some weird constraints on the writers and directors, but there were hints that they were making at least something resembling an effort to acknowledge the fact that the world is made up of more than just white men and the white women who refused to be stepped on by them. The presence and power of black women on the island was one hint at that effort.

The diversity of Steve’s renegade crew and the fact that they were all given space for their backstories, which called out real suffering, was another hint. What I would like to see in the next movie is more. I don’t see any excuse for them to not improve with the Justice League movie.

On a relation not, I understand what that questionable review meant by calling Diana and Steve equals. They’re not, obviously, when it comes to combat stats. Diana could whip Steve like cream and no mistake. But what this gem does, magnificently, is show a relationship in which a man and a woman are both strong characters with independent agency.That dynamic is one of the things that puts Wonder Woman above a lot of reasonable decent strong female protagonist movies/shows, and Steve sets a standard for how sidekicks should be written, no matter what their race or gender. Steve is an ass about gender and Diana has yet to grow into something resembling a capacity for finesse or subtlety, but they managed to work together without either diminishing the other, and I want to see more of that well-managed tension.

In short…

Wonder Woman was the first superhero movie I have ever been to that felt like it was written for me. I felt in my bones the point of making superhero stories, which is a brand new experience for me. Diana is a larger-than-life reflection of how I want to be in the world. I really hope this lovely movie is just one on the leading edge of a wave of movies that do the same for people who are still waiting for their Wonder Woman.

Convention Bingo for Authors

I had the opportunity to attend my first convention as an author this past weekend, with many thanks to Bar Harbor Batman and his cohorts in setting up the first ever Bar Harbor Comic Con. I got the invite to participate in January, and John was an absolute champion of putting together graphics to make our booth look all shiny and professional.

The most exciting work John put together for me was a bookmark based on the preliminary art for the cover of the third book in the Sidhe Diaries, Autumn’s Exile. (It’s almost ready for beta readers, so if you’d like to help me fix it, let me know!) I’ve enjoyed both of the covers John has done for me so far, but I think I like this one the best. What do you think?

Participating in the convention itself was a delightful experience and I just can’t thank the lovely people who bought my books and the people who organized the con enough. It was a day of firsts for me, and I kept thinking I needed a scavenger hunt list or a bingo card of experiences that make a con lovely for an author. So here’s a list of lovely things that happened to me:

  • Got asked for my autograph for the first time
  • Got to enjoy some amazing cosplay. (An absolute standout Hera Syndulla had the table across from us.)
  • Found a bookstore placement for my books (The Briar Patch in Bangor, ME. Local folks, please go spend your book money there. They’re great.)
  • Got to watch multiple dance-offs between Batman and other cosplayers.
  • Sold physical copies of my books for the first time
  • Got to connect with some other Maine authors (Shout out to the Horror Writers of Maine, who were pleasant table neighbors, and Carrie Jones, who is a delight and whose YA feminist twist on gothic romance is definitely now on my to-read list.)
  • Sold my books to people who are not related to me
  • Got to listen to Gigi Edgely talk about working on Farscape and her upcoming movie
  • Sold books to my target demographic (Who are, by the way, THE BEST. I’m not just sucking up. I just loved how, when I explained that beta reading means telling me what they hate about my books so I can make them better, their eyes just lit up.)
  • Had some fun conversations with people about costuming and building props
  • Sold books to people I would not have expected to be in my demographic (Internet high-five to dudes who spend money on books about strong female protagonists–you’re fearlessly riding the wave of positive change.)
  • Was sought out by someone who had actually read my blog and liked my writing enough to put all her raffle tickets on my donated books and decided to buy my stuff anyway. (That flattery will sustain me for YEARS. You have no idea.)

Just nothing but good times, all day long. And the kick in the pants I got organizing for the con means that, (a) we’ve got our act together (the other in the “we” being John, since I would not have pulled this off without his essential help) to sell books at other cons, and (b) I’ve got my act together to offer signed books through my website. So…

Mainers, come see me at PortCon!
Everyone who wants signed copies of my book, you can order them here!

A Reading List for Right Now

I’ve been trying to avoid chewing my fingernails with increasing difficulty as the news piles up. It feels like everything coming out of the new administration requires petitions and phone calls to officials and rallies and marches…and it’s exhausting. It’s hard work to sort out the issues that are absolutely essential from the issues that are the result of the Other Party being in charge, which is probably the point of the onslaught of absurdities. It’s hard work to avoid getting swept up in the vicious polarization that makes communication across party lines fruitless, which makes the situation worse. And it’s hard work to bear in mind that political and social change happen in a historical context and over an extended period of time, which means that we have to think strategically, not reactively.

For myself, I think one of the most sanity-preserving tactics in my toolbox is crafting a reading list. My goals in putting this list together are as follows:

  • Gain some perspective by reading about historical situations that have some relevance of similarity
  • Reinforce my ability for empathy by reading about experiences that are different from my own, especially those of people who currently feel threatened
  • Remind myself that it’s okay, and in fact preferable, to Not Panic

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of valuable reading material, so further recommendations are heartily encouraged in the comments. Topics I would especially appreciate recommendations on are effective peaceful resistance and what’s needed to depolarize the nation. Also: please feel free to recommend topics.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s the list of books (in no particular order) I’ve bumped up the reading queue or decided to revisit.

Books to Read While the World Seems Intent On Burning

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is an author I would generally recommend right now. Particularly Step Across This Line, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in addition to Midnight’s Children. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because it looks at early post-colonial India and the birth of Pakistan. The other books I listed also pay attention to the political context of religious conflict in India, and it is a situation we really ought to (have) learn(ed) from. Beyond the thought-provoking value, which is high, I love Rushdie’s writing because his wit sets the example of the essential relationship between rage and compassion.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

Arendt was a German-born Jewish political theorist who escaped Europe during the Holocaust. Her work doesn’t exactly qualify as “fun,” but it seems important right now to think more deeply about how racism plays a role in the rise of totalitarianism in order to effectively fight the repetition of history. Also worth reading by Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem (in order to consider how a person who sees himself as reasonable and decent comes to perpetuate impossible evil) and The Human Condition (for a broader perspective on political action).

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I read this graphic novel and its sequel for the first time last summer and was immediately struck by the parallels to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (more below). I would consider this absolutely essential reading right now, if nothing else to remind us that (a) prosperous, modern societies can actually be dragged disastrously backwards by bad government to the harm of all and (b) the refugees fleeing from religious persecution and bad governments are JUST LIKE US in all of the ways that matter.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The recommendation to read this has been going around lately, but not quite for the reasons it makes my list. Everyone has been saying, “It could happen to us!” And so it could, I suppose, but the focus of the book is on how the main character and the women around her end up accepting the situation with minimal resistance because they value safety over freedom. It’s a lovely consideration of the psychology of living under a rising tyranny and offers worthwhile insight about what we might watch for in ourselves. For similar reasons, I’ll add David R. Blumenthal’s “The Banality of Good and Evil,” which looks at the Holocaust and psychology experiments in the last century to ask how decent people can become the unresisting instruments of monstrosity.

Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

Yes, yes. We all think of 1984 every time someone mentions “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the fact that Trump has inherited a worrisome capacity for surveillance. But I think there’s more to be learned from reading about Orwell’s inspiration for 1984: his time as a British military officer in Burma. Reading about it in the context of Myanmar’s modern police state is a powerful experience that lends a prophetic quality to 1984. But looking at Myanmar’s progression in recent years after reading this book, one has to take some hope in the notion that tyrannies fall because they don’t work.

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

This one was just recommended to me this week, and I’m glad it was. It’s not that easy for me to relate to people who are spewing fearful vitriol, at least in part because my life has been pretty safe and relatively stable, economically speaking. There are, however, pockets of the U.S. where the culture and economic reality is quite different, and even if, no, especially if, I disagree with the politics coming out of those pockets, it seems important to acknowledge that many of the people who are endorsing fearful nationalist attitudes are probably scared and hurting…and they are part of the fabric of our nation that needs to be cared for too.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve had this on my “to read” stack for an embarrassingly long time. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner about gender identity. We’re living in a world where gender identity is still a fraught issue and the rights of transgendered people are not sufficiently protected. The current administration will probably make things worse, so it seems more important than ever to listen hard to the stories of people who are at risk. (On a related note: High five, Boy Scouts of America!)

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Another one on the list of books I’m slightly embarrassed not to have gotten around to years ago, Invisible Man is highly praised for its literary merits. Ellison specifically wanted to avoid writing just another protest about racism, but of course, the way race colors (no pun intended) one’s existence is deeply at the heart of the narrative. I often feel at a loss about how best to make the world more equitable, but one tiny thing I can absolutely do is take more time to listen to the stories of people who are not treated as equal.

Good Poems for Hard Times – Garrison Keillor, ed.

The title pretty much speaks for itself. The intro uses the words “bracing and courageous” to describe the content, and I think it’s just nice to have a ready dose of “bracing and courageous” on hand right now.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

I saved this for last because it’s the one I would most encourage you all to read. Looking at statistical data over time, Pinker makes a compelling argument that the world is becoming a safer and more educated place. When we’re dealing with immediate, short-term potential disasters, it’s easy to feel like the world is irreparably on fire, but it’s more likely that we’re in, at most, a little downward blip on a long upward slope. Of course, historical trends are not an excuse for inaction in the face of immediate injustice. Also of course, confirmation bias is something to watch out for. BUT: we can take heart from the historical data and use it to reign in our less productive tendencies to catastrophize.

Return to Philadelphia

We’re wrapping up another whirlwind work tour of Philadelphia. I couldn’t have been more delighted that WordCamp US was held in the same city for two years running. Even though I have stellar bosses who are dedicated to providing time and financing for enriching experiences and incredible food, there’s only so much that can be seen in the time available around soaking in the professional development stuff that’s actually our real reason for coming down here. Last year, I was left wanting more. This year, I got to hit several of the places we ran out of time for last year.

The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.

The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.

WordCamp Itself

I’ve got a lot of work and personal action points coming out of WordCamp, but the crossover relevance with my blog audience is probably a bit limited, so I won’t get into the weeds here. I do, however, want to point you to the resource page for Dennis Hong’s talk “The Dark Side of Democratization.” He has a very functional perspective on the challenges of misinformation and communication outside of our own belief bubbles, and he put together a reading list and set of tools that is well worth a deep read and deep think for every single human being.

The Food

If you’re never going to travel to Philly, you may as well skip down this section and head right to The Sights. If you’re planning a trip that involves staying near city center, two notes: (1) Getting good, non-chain coffee before 7am is pretty much impossible. (2) Walking into a restaurant with less than a 30 minute wait is not likely to happen.

Jamonera – Tapas bar. Papa fritas were superb. They put floaty herbal bits in my cocktail that kept coming up the straw, which wasn’t my favorite. Solid tapas, but not amazing.

Old City Coffee – Small batch hand-roasted coffee in Reading Terminal Market. Best decaf I have found pretty much anywhere to date.

Beiler’s Donuts – Fresh made donuts in Reading Terminal Market. Especially good if you catch them warm. If you buy less than half a dozen, you will end up waiting in line a second time.

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House  – Awesome noodles in Chinatown. Slippery chopsticks and massive noodle piles make this a tricky thing to eat tidily, but well worth the mess.

The Happy Rooster – Accidental find that we ate at because it was literally the first place we found with a free table. Top-notch Brussels sprouts, and generally good bar menu.

Foods on First Diner – Freshest breakfast sandwich I’ve had in a while. Super friendly service, more spacious than average, good decaf. Good sausage. Homefries were a weird hashbrown/homefries mutant.

El Vez – Rumor has it the bathrooms are worth a visit, but we forgot to follow up on that rumor. the Mexcal margarita was awesome. Guacamole, mole enchilada, and mahi mahi taco were outstanding.

Good Dog Bar – Adorable dog photos everywhere. Their signature burger (with a cheese pocket) is supposed to be really good, but we didn’t try it. The spicy tofu was our general favorite.

Art at Elixr

Art at Elixr

Elixr – So hipster it would be painful if the coffee (pourover) wasn’t phenomenal. The door is flush with the wall in what’s barely more than an alley, so don’t give up if you think your directions are wrong. Great wifi.

White Dog Cafe – Very diverse dog art, including some crazy detailed dogs in human military uniform paintings. One of the oldest farm-to-table restaurants. Brunch was generally stellar, but the Bloody Marys were the standout.

Barbuzzo – We managed to get a reservation for this, and it turned out to be a great final dinner. Great Mediterranean food. The ricotta, the gnocchi, and the budino were the highlights.

Federal Donuts – This came highly recommended: the cake donuts are made fresh in small batches. I tried the Strawberry Lavender. Best cake donut I’ve ever had, but being a raised donut person, I’ll stick to Beiler’s.

The Sights

Night at the Museum

WordCamp rented out the Academy of Natural Sciences for the after party this year, and while it wasn’t easily possible to study many of the explanations of exhibits around all the networking and free food and booze stations ;), it was still incredible. My favorite section was far and away the animatronic dinosaurs. You could say the display approach is a bit goofy or kitschy, but it’s also fascinating to look at how the display creators thought through join articulation, musculature, skin texture, and choices of hair and feathers. Maybe I shouldn’t, as an adult, be quite so wonderstruck by being roared at by big plastic dinosaurs, but the whole thing just tickled me pink. I mean, look at the custom-knit gloves on this Doctor-scarf-sporting dapper gent: how can you not respect the attention to detail that goes into this stuff?

A Morning in Prison

Parapet at Eastern State Penitentiary

The arrow slits in the wall surrounding the facility are just to create the impression of a fortress. They don’t actually go all the way through the wall.

Last year, we hadn’t managed to make our way over to the Eastern State Penitentiary. This is the world’s first penitentiary and served as the model for hundreds of prisons around the world, representing a shift from temporarily jailing people in appalling conditions while awaiting trial and sentences of various corporal punishments to a model of jailing people in solitary confinement as punishment, to supposedly give them the gift of silence and solitude to rediscover their better selves.

The tour is brilliantly curated to take you through the evolution of the prison system, pointing out the problems they were trying to solve and noting the ones the solutions created. Looking at the prison population in the U.S. and, in particular, the spike in that population since the 1970s, the educational experience presented by this museum is incredibly relevant. We were there for several hours and I still only scraped the surface of the stories being told–this one is worth multiple visits. If you can’t make it to the museum, it’s worth reading up on.

Medicine and Monstrosity

The tagline "Disturbingly Informative" fits this place perfectly.

The tagline “Disturbingly Informative” fits this place perfectly.

Our last stop of the day was another one we ran out of time for last year: The Mutter Museum. There is a strict no photography policy in the exhibit out of respect for the dead displayed there. This is not a place for the weak of stomach. Lots of bones, weird deformed pieces of corpses, and various pickled organs. What stood out for me was the struggle between the human need to know more about the body in order to practice better medicine and the human taboo against screwing around with decomposing flesh. On the one hand, you’ve got people with crippling medical issues begging doctors to use their bodies to help find a cure for others. On the other hand, you’ve got the brain of Albert Einstein being taken from his body and dissected without the family’s permission. In between, you’ve got a doctor taking rare saponified corpses from a building site where they were unearthed under a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” pretense of being requested to deliver the bodies to their kin, who could not possibly be known. And somewhere on that scale, you’ve got writers of medical textbooks robbing graves and storing corpses in their own bedrooms for weeks at a time. (I’m looking at you, Vesalius. That’s pretty damn weird even if you did help democratize medical education.)

What has moral precedent: the gathering of information to inform the healing of countless future generations, or the squeamishness of a grieving family?

Christmas Fair at Dilworth Park

Reindeer in the maze gardenI don’t know what Philly is like the rest of the year, but at Christmas time, it is adorable and garlanded and sparkly. We’ve been staying right near City Hall, so we’ve been walking around this little craft fair, complete with a skating rink and a fascinating variety of buskers, all weekend. We finally puttered through the crowds today, and while there’s only so much Christmas shopping I’m willing to do given that I have to shove my bag onto a plane to get home, it’s a festive environment. I particularly liked the reindeer in the generously named America’s Capital Garden Maze, and I think this one captures my sentiment precisely.

Until next time, Philadelphia.

 

Grateful

It’s hard to be thankful when you’re worried and afraid, but it’s also harder to be afraid when you can see the good things that surround you, so…a few thoughts on things I’m grateful for and how I’m showing gratitude.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the kindness of the Wampanoag confederacy, who taught our ancestors how to survive in a strange land when they arrived fleeing religious and political persecution. I am thankful for that kindness. About a century ago, one of my ancestors fled political persecution in Ireland and was able to build a prosperous life in Boston. Not long after that, one of my ancestors came from Quebec looking for economic opportunities and was also able to build a prosperous life. I am grateful for the opportunities they found here. I am going to honor the kindness of the Wampanoag and the open door policies of the U.S. by advocating kindness for immigrants and for the descendants of this land’s original inhabitants, who are fighting hard battles for a decent life.

Here are a few places I’m looking at supporting:

Donate to or volunteer for the International Refugee Assistance Project »
Donate to or volunteer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund »
Help the Sioux protect Standing Rock »
Donate to or volunteer for the Partnership with Native Americans »

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

Going through my feed this morning, I came across an article about making food affordable in the U.S., and this statement gave me hope:

“Despite our political differences, most Americans are united in the belief that our children should not go hungry.” – Mark Bittman

I’m grateful for that hope that we are all united by the desire to see children fed. It’s a very low bar for what civilization should look like, but common ground is something to be thankful for. This is common ground we can all work on, because kids are hungry, even in the U.S. Here’s a small thing John and I are doing:

bumper-sticker_5

We put together this silly little design and slapped it on some mugs. (Dan, I theoretically put it on a bumper sticker, but CafePress is being buggy, so for now: mugs.) Every single penny that we get from sales on this (plus some of our own) will be going to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine. If you want to join us in supporting their work of reducing hunger but want to do so in a more effective way and don’t care for another mug, donate directly to the GSFB. If you want your donation to have a more national impact, consider donating to Feeding America.

We must get up and take that in, the wind that lets us live.

When I got a puppy, who is high on my obvious things I’m grateful for list, I did not expect to find myself grateful for the difficulty of owning a dog. For every manic greeting, for every snuggle, for every game, there is twice as much boring waiting. Waiting for her to poop, waiting for her to get tired of playing fetch, waiting for her to be done playing at the dog park. I’m willing to do the waiting: sometimes because I know it’s important for her well-being, and sometimes because I just want her to be exhausted enough to let me watch Outlander without interruption. Whatever the reason in the moment, these periods of waiting are necessary and routinely inconvenient. They have taught me the value of inconvenient boredom. This year, in the course of waiting for Ivy to poop, I have seen more stars and more fireflies and more sunsets and more sunrises than in the last ten years combined. At least. Being stuck there between the scatalogical and the cosmological, I’ve been learning to better appreciate the little vacations from mundanity that pop up in unexpected places. Of all the things about my dog I’m grateful for, that one takes the cake.

This might get second place:

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Sooo many cozy nights of being bracketed by Kali and Ivy.

I don’t have a nice, linkable action point on this one, but I guess…I’m trying not to talk myself out of a chance to grow just because a thing seems hard or time-consuming or tedious or scary.

Each of us can work to change a small portion of events.

I’ve been feeling powerless watching the bad news stack up, but I got an email yesterday from the parks director in my town. I had done a little research this summer about creating a dog park here and approached him about the idea. He was very receptive, but had been quiet for a while, so I wasn’t sure where we stood. But today Ivy and I went with him to look at a lovely site where we will have a dog park next summer. He got the right of way permissions squared away, has approached some sponsors for fencing, and has put the plans in motion to complete the necessary infrastructure to access the spot. I’m grateful for the affirmation that sometimes, sometimes, making changes to our local communities can start very effectively with the simple act of saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if…”

There’s a lot for me to be grateful for today–this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope the same is true for all of you. Happy Thanksgiving.