hollymath: (Default)
Warms my little heart to wake up to three entries in a row on my friends page saying "LJ Idol? I'm in!"

I do occasionally have the smallest twinge of sadness I'm not joining in this time, but since I didn't even find time to say thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kickthehobbit for including me on her list of "people who should do Idol," I feel justified in sitting this out.

It did drag some of my best writing out of me, and I was impressed at how long I managed to maintain the discipline of writing something every week -- furiously typing on my phone in the car on the way back to Manchester late one night before the deadline, even getting [livejournal.com profile] whipchick to post my entry when was away with my parents somewhere with no internet or phone signal... But the best thing about it was the people I met there, the many people whose journals I still read because of LJ Idol.

Have fun, you crazy kids! I'll vote for you.
hollymath: (Default)
I told everyone it was my first vacation that wasn't with my family, or to go see my family, in my life.

Much as I love and miss my childhood trips “up north” to stay in a cabin by a lake and go fishing (the most Minnesotan vacation there could be), and the road trips to Colorado or Washington (state) to visit the extended family, and as much as I pine for Minnesota now and wish I could go back there more often than I do, it was time for something else.

I ended up with three friends on a narrowboat for a week.

The interior of our narrowboat.  The tiny, efficient kitchen and living area are seen in this picture.

I was bad at driving and the boys were happy enough to do it that I didn't need to practice a lot. I found it really stressful but I was better when I finished than when I'd started. This trade-off meant I did (for a while, but we'll get to that) a lot of locks though.

View from the front of a boat as it approaches a lock; the land pinches together to just over the width of our boat, and in the water ahead of us at that point is what looks like a wall, as wide as our boat and maybe 10 feet high. On top of it are handrails and gears... and a person.

This was taken as we approached Hurleston Junction at the end of the first day of our week-long canal trip. That's me at the top of the lock, ready to let the boat through.

It took me that day to get the hang of the locks (with excellent and patient help from the Daves) but after I did I loved them. Open the gates to let the boat in, close them behind it, run to the other end of the lock, open the sluices and watch the water flow. It only takes a few minutes to fill a lock; the boats are so narrow so the locks can be narrow and fill quickly. When the water levels are mostly even at the top, you close the sluices again, open the front gate, and run back to your boat as it putters away from you. I never got tired of watching a boat big enough for the four of us to live on it rise up, due to my little efforts. (I did sometimes get tired of seeing a lock loom into view just as I was sitting down with something to eat or a fresh cup of tea, though.)

The next day I learned that there were bridges, as well as locks, that we had to jump off the boat and deal with. Watching our boat approach a bridge at such a crazy angle made me dizzy at first, but it was just as well; I was often the one dealing with these things so spent my time turning my windlass as fast as possible to get the bridge up and down.

A small bridge over a narrow stretch of water, with a T-shaped brace based on one side of the bridge; the chains for the other side of the bridge are suspended from one end of the T.  The top of that T tilts as you crank the windlass to raise the bridge, and the chains pull the other side up.

Moving a whole bridge up into the air to give enough room for our boat to pass underneath really made me feel badass. I know I do a lot less work than the hydraulics and gravity, but still, I'm the one standing there holding the windlass and grinning as my friends go underneath on our boat. It's a short-lived satisfaction as I had to start lowering the bridge as soon as they were clear, so people could use the bridge again (though these weren't busy roads) and I could get back to my slowly-receding boat.

It was one of these bridges, though, that brought my vacation doom: in jumping off the boat, I landed funny and my right knee hurt for more than a week after that. I missed out on a lot of locks that way.

The view from a boat in a lock.  It looks like it's in a brick box no bigger than itself, but with daylight visible at the top.

I associate this view with simultaneously grumbling that I was missing out, guilt-tripping myself for leaving so much work to the boys, and wincing whenever I moved my leg.

So I missed out on the staircase lock.

View from the bottom of a series of three locks together, rising up like three big stairs made of water and lockgates.

I think I was actually woken up from a nap to see the view from the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, and while I cherished my naptimes on the boat, this was worth it.

Green hills, a few scattered houses, and the shadow of the arched bridge from which the photo is taken.

The bridge is an amazing feat of engineering: a 1007 foot-long cast iron trough supported 126 feet above the river on iron arched ribs carried on nineteen hollow masonry pillars.

The view from the bottom of the bridge, pillars towering above.

We had a lovely afternoon in Llangollen, eating amazing baked goods and going on the Llangollen Steam Railway.

A steam train at the station in Llangollen, grey plume rising from it.

The steam train ride took us to a little cafe and shop, where I excitedly bought The BHS Space Encyclopedia from 1985 (making it just like ones I read when I was a kid, and thus The Way I Think Space Should Look) and a badge that says "RAILWOMAN." No five-year-old could have been happier with that loot.

A sturdy looking castle on top of a lush green hill.

The highlight of our trip home was Chirk Castle, wherein many enthusiastic guides told us about various aspects of the castle's life (the stately home, the weapons and armor -- I still have a few rings of mail -- not chain mail -- that I helped make there -- and on the way back we had to traverse something called either a hoho or a haha; I can't remember because I started calling it a hooha, which made the boys laugh. Anyway there's nothing funny about the haha; it's a big ditch I had to jump into, and while Dave made a chivalric gesture in lifting me down, he ended up with a nettle in his bum for his efforts.

One of the best things about canal boat holidays is the other people and boats you encounter on the canal. The people tend to be friendly and chatty, might help you out with a lock or a bridge. And even the boats you pass without a word, abandoned at their moorings or just with stoical helmsmen, can be fascinating. There's a long history of decorative paintwork on the exteriors of the boats, called roses and castles, and some of the boats also have lovely names.

Boat called'Ydwrgi' which seems to be from the town of Abercraf.

We spent a lot of time speculating on what we'd want in boats of our own. I remember well the conversations about what we'd want to name them. Suggestions ranged from The Snuggly Nook (which I think is awesome, but the partner of the person suggesting it did not agree), and The Pauli Exclusion Principle, which is so important in the lives of cruising canal boats, I always thought as I mopped up tea spilled in slight collisions with the bankside.

Boat called 'Shiva Moon', which also has painted on it 'Life's a journey, not a destination.'

And I suppose it's a good thing life's not a destination, because I ended up right back where I started, but I felt a lot better for my vacation.
hollymath: (postmark)

All my heroes had colorful names...

Aguilera was one of the hardest words I had learned to spell up to that point in my young life. I already knew how to say it, though, thanks to hearing Herb Carneal or John Gordon say it in dozens of radio broadcasts.

The Minnesota Twins got Rick Aguilera as a last-minute addition to a last-minute trade for Frank Viola, the pitcher whose fake-signature was on my first baseball glove, which my small hand outgrew soon after he helped us win the World Series when I was five.

In 1991, Aguilera set a team record with 42 saves, and had three each in the ALCS and the World Series (the last being that Game Six, insuring it went down as Puckett's Game and not the won-in-six Series for the Braves that it so easily could have been).

I was nine and now my team had won the World Series twice in my short lifetime. I accepted this as only right and proper and would have probably assumed, if I'd bothered to think about it at all, that the Twins would win the World Series every four or five years now (I was aware they hadn't won it before, and had only been in it once, the unimaginable year of 1965, but...well, I guess I thought things were different now that I was around).


Closer is one of those jobs, like plumber, that no one notices if you do it right.

When the bathroom's flooded with sewage, then people call you.

The closer is the pitcher who comes in near the end of the game, in the last (usually) inning. Especially when his team's ahead by a couple of runs and all he's got to do is keep it that way so they win the game (if he does, it's called a “save”).

A starting pitcher may pitch six, seven, eight innings on a good day, more than 100 pitches, 20+ outs if he's lucky. All the closer has to do is get those last three outs.

Can't be that hard, right?


I'd pitched five days straight
They didn't want to bring me in
My arm was hamburger meat

They didn't want to bring me in
Bases loaded, nobody out

They had to bring me in
Some hot-shot rookie

They didn't want to bring me in
Switch-hitting batting champ

They didn't want to bring me in...

The crowd's yelling, the players are tense, the game is close. The pressure is high and mistakes are magnified: a little thing could mean the difference between a win and a loss. I hold my breath, fidget, flail, shout, swear, hide my head in my hands...and I'm just watching it on TV

It was the stillness before he pitched that had first caught her eye and her admiration. He didn't stalk around the mound like some of them did, or bend to fiddle with his shoes, or pick up the rosin bag and toss it back down with a little flump of white dust. No, Number 36 just waited for the batter to finish all of his fiddle-de-diddling. He was so still in his bright white uniform as he waited for the batter to be ready.

More often than not, the endings are happy. Million-to-one chances seem to happen nine times out of ten. (Baseball has the highest concentration of narrativium this side of the Discworld.)

MVP? Strike three!

My work was done again

And Tom Gordon points at the sky.


Everyday Eddie” Guardado got his nickname because he'd pitch whenever you needed him to pitch. He appeared in 908 games, many of them in years when the Twins were so terrible even I didn't like them (I watched the White Sox on WGN and had pictures of Robin Ventura on my bedroom walls), and it's not easy to be a closer on bad teams; your job involves pitching when your team is winning. Sometimes those “save opportunities” are few and far-between.

In the early 2000s things picked up for the team and, perhaps not coincidentally, that's when Everyday Eddie beat Aguilera's record for saves in a season. (It is, in fact, the season depicted in the film Moneyball, where briefly seeing a jersey with Guardado on the back made me so happy I nearly jumped out of my seat...even though the movie had set me up to follow a different team and the Twins were supposed to be random baddies, I couldn't help but feel I was among friends when I saw that name on someone's back.)


Joe Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins “in what may be the worst trade in San Francisco Giants' history.” He went from hardly having closed at all to being the only Twin to make it to the 2004 All-Star Game. The only All-Star on a team, the closer? I don't know how often that happens, but it can't be very likely. The players sent to the All-Star Game are partly chosen by fans, which means it's a popularity contest full of big hitters and big egos; with a few exceptions pitchers, especially closers, aren't very well-known. It's not a cool thing to be doing.

So naturally the Twins shirt I bought myself had Nathan's name and number (he's another Number 36) on the back. I'm sure I learned this perversity from my dad: for Christmas one year I got a Vikings replica jersey but it wasn't the quarterback's or a star wide-receiver's name on the back, it was the name of a special-teams kicker.

Maybe I like obscure players, maybe I feel I owe it to those whose talent and skill go underappreciated... maybe I just love someone who can do one thing really well.

Nathan hasn't been the same since those words every pitcher dreads – Tommy John – and those words every small-market fan dreads – free agency – but not before he became the Twins leader in career saves.

If you're only in it for a little while, you'd better make it count.

And I still wear the Twins t-shirt with his name and number on the back. Vanishingly few people here will know what it means anyway, much less that it's outdated. Similarly, maybe you reading this won't all follow all the details, but I hope you see why the closer is one of my favorite things about my favorite sport.

hollymath: (Default)

In a dystopian near-future...

I turned on the radio.

...and I think it's outrageous that poly people expect to get free STD tests on the NHS!” a Times New Romanvoice frothed.

I put the kettle on. Imagine being so irate so early in the morning! I yawned.

It's just condoning their sick and twisted lifestyle!” the ranting voice continued. “We said this would happen if the gays were allowed to marry!”

But everyone gets free STD tests,” the presenter said mildly. I admired es ability to ignore all the flame-bait there and find something e could be reasonable about. “It's a public health issue. It's important that no one be put off by cost--”

Well!” the guest said. “If they weren't having sex with so many people they wouldn't need so many STD tests!”

Um,” said the presenter. “I think you've made that classic Rush Limbaugh mistake there.”


You know, like he famously said in 2012 during the U.S. Republicans' War on Women anyway. He thought, the more sex women had, the more money needed to be spent on contraceptive pills, because he had no idea how the pills work: you take one a day regardless of whether you're having lots of sex or none.”

Are you saying I don't know how things work?!”

I laughed and shoved bread in the toaster with a little extra satisfaction. This is why I listen to 5 Live in the mornings; it reminds me that whatever's wrong with my life, at least I'm not these people, and if that doesn't cheer me up probably nothing will.

No...of course not,” the presenter lied. I'm just saying that as far as getting tested, there's no real difference between someone in multiple happy relationships and someone who's serially monogamous.”

Oh don't get me started on serial monogamy!”

Right, I'm not surprised you don't like that either. But it certainly isn't the fault of polyamorous people. And however much you dislike it, do you think you're going to stop, say, young people experimenting with sex and relationships? Because if they can't afford or won't pay for STD testing, and go on to infect all their friends with something...”

People shouldn't be sleeping with their friends!”

Hm, yes, we wouldn't want to live in a world full of friendly sex, would we? Imagine what that would do to the National Happiness Quotient.”

The kettle clicked off. Preoccupied for a minute in making coffee, the next thing I noticed from the radio was a different voice saying, “I think you're just jealous that all these people are getting more than you are! I bet you've never needed an STD test in your life because you've never even had--”

Oh dear, looks like we're experiencing some technical difficulties there, sorry, uh...Jenny,” the presenter lied. Some clever producer had clearly realized there are some things that are not conducive to people's appetites at breakfast time. Accusing this person of not having sex would have the same kind of effect as saying “don't think of a pink polar bear”: however improbable, that's the image that leaps immediately to mind.

I buttered my toast, but might have been a bit cautious about putting it near my mouth with such unsavory ideas rolling around my head.

Another caller: “Hey! It's really interesting to hear you talking about how terrible poly people are, Sam! I mean, I don't remember you saying any of this, and I asked both of my spice and they say there was a distinct lack of protest when we...”

For a long moment after this caller hung up (signing off with “I hope you've taken advantage of those free STD tests; we all have since we broke up with you”), the only sound in my kitchen was me happily munching my toast.

I know the BBC wouldn't skip a beat in reporting nuclear apocalypse, but catching a sexual moralizer at the thing they're railing against is so much less important, and less surprising, that the grand old institution can be forgiven the dead air time it took for the presenter to recover from that shoulder-shaking silent laughter as the slack-jawed boggle-eyed guest worked up a good lather of offense and indignation.

hollymath: (Default)
I didn't go out or do anything yesterday, and I may not today, either.

Sometimes I don't like going out because I don't like getting dressed because a lot of my clothes fit funny because clothes are made stupidly but also because I have gotten fatter. Again.

Usually I'm pretty good at this size-acceptance and health-at-every-size stuff. I may never manage to completely overturn a childhood and adolescence full of all the wrong messages about food and appearance and weight, but I'm doing a lot better these days.

I wonder sometimes how I managed to avoid developing an eating disorder, but I have. And luckily (in a way) my mom isn't good enough at strict diet or exercise regimes to enforce them on herself, much less me, so I shouldn't have the health problems that yo-yo dieting bring.

I have some friends who are clued up on issues like how fatness intersects with class, ableism and feminism. Their ability to respect themselves and their bodies makes it obvious that they aren't just reading about this; they're putting it into practice. I often think of one saying something like "The idea that I should be thinner means I should take up less space -- that there should be less of me!" Her scornful laughter makes it clear what she thinks of this and I agree with her -- she's fantastic, and she deserves to take up that space!

But: ha. When I'm depressed, I don't think I deserve to take up the space that I do. I don't want to. I don't want to go anywhere or do anything; I don't want to read books or sleep or think or talk or watch DVDs...or eat. I always do, mind. Maybe not enough, maybe not the best things for me, but not eating hurts and I don't like things that hurt, so I eat.

I do plenty of things I don't want to. Another thing my childhood taught me was to so successfully detach what I want from what's going to happen to me that now I usually have no idea what I want. That makes me sound like I was an abused child or something; I wasn't, I just had parents limited partly by time and money like everyone is, but mostly because they have really specific ideas about what they want, and what's "normal," and that reduced my options to the subset of things we both liked. (Also being unable to drive stunted my growth and extended my childish dependence on them: not only could I not get a job and earn my own money, but I couldn't buy a book or a "weird" food in a restaurant without their scrutiny because they were always there.)

Today I want to buy some new shoes, because mine are falling apart. Will I get what I want?

Well. I'd have to get dressed first.
hollymath: (Default)
I breezed through school without much trouble or effort. “Effortless intention to succeed seems to me to be the ideal attitude,” say the gambling experts who tell you scared money never wins.

But my effortless early success meant I didn't learn how to study, how to manage my time, how to bullshit, how to settle, how to regurgitate what I was told without engaging my brain...

So of course, without all those skills, I crashed and burned in college.

If we'd had kids I hope I'd tell them, if they asked how their parents met (do kids ask this? I never did because no one told me stories), that we met because sometimes your life doesn't go the way you think it will and sometimes there's someone who understands that.

Even if they're 4000 miles away.

I hadn't even been on a plane before, but I wasn't as afraid of going to see him as I was to tell my parents, who complained I didn't see them enough when I was in college 200 miles away that this was how I was going to spend the summer after I failed or dropped out (I've never been quite sure which).

Who says scared money never wins?

I was so afraid of the black hole my life had become, that just seemed to have sucked all my plans and hopes and personality into itself and giving me nothing in return but endless blackness to stare down. I had to run before that blackness became a Wile E. Coyote-type tunnel with a train roaring out of it to squash him flat. I don't recover as easily as cartoon characters.

So then there was the day when I was getting ready for work when suddenly, reaching for my favorite red sweater to complete that day's armor my knees just collapsed beneath me; my body refused to do what I asked of it and all I could do was cry until my dear husband came in to see what was wrong.

Who says scared money never wins?

I didn't go to work that day; I did something I was even more reluctant to: I went to the doctor. I finally tried to talk about how all these isolated incidents in my past weren't isolated at all and that it was time to talk about drugs or counselling or something. I grudgingly admitted that pretending that “depression” only happened to other people was not only stupid but counterproductive: I was getting worse instead of better, as you will if you push any part of your body too hard – walking on a broken leg only causes more damage to it – and now I had anxiety along with the depression.

I learned that all these physical symptoms I berated myself for (“I'm lazy,” “I'm a bad person,” “I just don't want to work” ...all the lies people with mental illnesses are told by the people who resent our existence and want to make it our fault so they know they're safe from ever experiencing such a thing themselves) were anxiety and panic attacks.

I've learned a lot since then about what I can and can't and should and shouldn't do, and more than (almost) anything I wish I could tell that to the version of myself who so loved college but wasn't ready for it at all.

Of course I wish I didn't have to fuck up as badly as I did to learn all these stupid life lessons. That early success taught me to hate and resent and regret failure, so I wish I could've avoided so much of it.

But...I've met people who've never had to spend their scared money, people who've gone seamlessly from good families to good grades to good jobs and good lives with good houses and good people around them. And (I don't think this is only because I envy them, but) I find a lot of them kind of hard to be around. We seem to be living on different planes of existence.

Plus a lot of them are dickheads with massive entitlement complexes.

The people I'm closest to, they all seem to have had times in their lives where they fucked up like I did, or where the world just shat on them because it's unfair, and they've had to throw everything they had at the situation in hopes of improving it. Not even with the “intention to succeed,” because there's no guarantee of success, but just because we have hope and we have to do something.

It hasn't always worked – scared money doesn't always win – but in the process of trying we seem to have gained some kind of fellow feeling, a basic level of introspection, or just giving-someone-the-benefit-of-the-doubt, none of which the dickheads can usually muster.

I don't look for sob stories when I meet people; I just find out gradually as our relationships deepen that a lot of the best of us have been through a lot of the worst (many much worse than me). I wouldn't wish that on anyone, and some of the silver linings are awfully slender indeed, but I think it helps to dwell on the good stuff I wouldn't have now if I hadn't risked my scared money, because I so far have been lucky enough to win.
hollymath: (Default)
“It's going to be in the mid-thirties AGAIN tonight. I'll swap ya!” I said when a Facebook friend was complaining about the humidity in his part of America.

“If you're giving the temp in F, you're either being very nice and converting or you're in Minnesota, Holly....” he replied.

He'll never know it, but there he put another nail in the coffin of our once deep and close friendship. (A little nail, mind. Not like the big one he made out of his smug advice on relationships not long before we both got married; him on his way to his third divorce, me to someone who just informed me he's been married to me for nearly 20% of his life.)

I wasn't in Minnesota, I certainly wasn't “being very nice” and I wasn't converting, either. I was telling the temperature the only way I do.

This is not the first time I've seen him try to erase my Americanness, and each time it happens I get more frustrated.

The social pressures to assimilate are so strong that their faint ripples extend even to the expectations of others towards a monolingual person of northern-European extraction moving only from one rich, majority-white, anglophone, imperial/colonizing nation to another.

When I put it like that, the UK and USA are so similar I'd think it churlish to consider myself a minority here. I'd feel I was appropriating that label from people who really “need” or “deserve” it, to try to narrow the gaps of social inequality. The fact that “BME” (black & minority ethnic) is generally used in opposition to “white” – implying BME isn't a category meant to include white people – reinforces that understanding, and reaffirms my desire not to barge in on things meant for people less privileged than I am.

And yet... when another Facebook friend of mine linked to an early version of this story (before the relatively happy ending) e seethed that the “short back and sides” the school demanded was not in fact the only “traditional hairstyle” but a traditional white hairstyle. I commented that while of course I agreed with es point, I had no idea what “short back and sides” actually meant (having heard it only in Monty Python's lumberjack sketch!). E agreed that it was “traditional white British” and I was relieved.

I struggle to find a way to discuss that not all white cultures are the same, without detracting from the truth that we have unfairly powerful and easy lives whatever kind of white we are. Usually I think it's better to say nothing than to say something wrong.


Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:28 pm
hollymath: (Default)
The thing you have to remember is that as long as there have been things, things have been spinning.

Since the Big Bang spread everything out, little patches of it have been coming back together.

And since they never do that perfectly symmetrically, there's always a little imbalance. The particles of gas and dust come together and they spin. They turn like gears, like clockwork, like a wheel in its wheelhouse. They turn because that's the thing to do.

They spin like records, right round baby.

Because there's more at the middle than the edges, the middle bulges above and below the disk. This is how our sun got started. The disk swirling around it coalesced. Here one of my favorite words in astronomy comes in: planetesimals. The not-quite-infintesimally-small proto-planets, dozens of them whirling around the Sun, crashing and colliding, breaking apart, combining and growing into the friendly planets we know and love today. Which still spin -- maybe on their side, like Uranus, or backwards, like Venus -- but they're all still in their wheelhouses.

Even if you don't know it, you're already in your wheelhouse.

You're the product of billions of years of evolution, designed to live on this ball spinning around this sun. Your eyes see best in the colors of light where the Sun shines most brightly. Your muscles are made for the gravity you get on this size a sphere.

You spin with it, 24 hours per day, 365.25 days a year. A few humans escaped the grasp of this planet for a few days each, but they only went top the Moon, which swings the tides that rock life back and forth every day, giving us words for "month" and "menses" and "lunacy," perhaps even werewolves.

And the Earth and Sun and Moon and all the other planets and moons in the solar system spin through the spiral arms of the galaxy we call the Milky Way, a big disk itself that, like the solar system, bulges in the middle and spins around, another axis on the tilt-a-whirl of our Universe.

The galaxy moves on a bigger scale too, as part of what we parochially call the Local Group of galaxies, which is itself part of the bigger Virgo Cluster.

And by this point, we've zoomed out to a scale so big that even "astronomical" hardly seems a sufficient adjective to describe them.

Honestly, it's enough to make your head spin.

So all you need to know is that it's all going on as it has for billions of years, with no help or permission needed from us. We and our planet are perfectly tailored to each other in feedback cycles of geology and weather and evolution that go round and round, like ringlets in the Goldilocks zone.
hollymath: (i love)
One of my favorite things about physics is the nomenclature.

The names contain little fossilized stories, not about how things got to be that way, but about how scientistis discovered and attempted to understand how things got to be that way.

The weak force is called that because it's weaker than the strong force (who'd have thought!) and electromagnetism. These are three of the four "fundamental forces," but the fourth, gravity, is actually by far the weakest.

The weak force allows quarks to change from one "flavor" to another (quantom physics talks of things like "color" and "flavor" despite it being on a scale far too small for the detection of these things by the senses that we usually think of as perceiving color or flavor), thus allowing the possibility that the theory of the weak interation can be called "quantum flavordynamics."

That's going on the list of good band names, right next to Sin On The Roof.

Okay, so quarks. The quark model was independently proposed by two different people. One wanted to call them "aces," which I think is a pretty cool name. The other, Murray Gell-Mann, came up with quarks, whose spelling comes from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

There are six kinds, or flavors, of quarks: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top.

Up and down refer to the opposing "spins" that they have.

The strange quark is named after another property of particles, which is actually called strangeness.

The discoverers of the charm quark said, "We called our construct the 'charmed quark', for we were fascinated and pleased by the symmetry it brought to the subnuclear world."

When I was little and first reading about quarks, the last two were called "truth" and "beauty" at least as often as "top" and "bottom," but the less whimsical terminology seems to have become the norm since. Which I think is kind of a shame.

I could argue that it's a shame because, say, "top" and "bottom" are potentially confusingly-similar to "up" and "down," or something like that. But really it's just because I prefer the more evocative labels "truth" and "beauty" (remember the "fascinated and pleased" of the charm quark?) and delight at their being part of science (also for the ability to decide whether beauty is truth, truth beauty or not).

Accelerators devoted to producing bottom quarks (another reason the other words are better is that, if you have friends like mine, it's too easy to imagine the sniggers at the inevitable rude-sounding uses of words like "bottom"!) are sometimes known as beauty factories.

There's no way they're going to be calling them bottom factories now.

I rest my case.
hollymath: (Default)
I am at Brislington, near Bristol... far from London, though in a manner of speaking it is the Thames that brought me here.

Several attempts to build a tunnel under the Thames in the last three decades have ended in disaster: floods, the earth collapsing...the stories sound almost biblical. And yet my father is convinced the tunnel can be built, and that he knows how to do it.

Sometimes I felt as if the earth itself resisted our labours, and wanted nothing more than to close itself up over us... but whenever I despaired too much, I sought out my father, as we worked together. His expression might have belied his weariness, but his eyes always showed such confidence and determination. There is nothing my father can't do.

I worked hard for my victories, and celebrated them when they came. The first time the tunnel flooded, I descended in a diving bell from a boat in the Thames, to throw bags of clay down to the bottom that would seal a hole in the tunnel's roof. When it had been repaired and drained again, I held a banquet in it.

Progress was slow. And people kept getting sick. I had only taken over as the project's resident engineer when Mr. Armstrong, the previous one, had fallen ill.

All the muck and filth in London ends up in the Thames sooner or later, and all of the Thames seemed to seep onto our heads as we worked. The miners' lamps kept setting the noxious air aflame. No wonder the damned are promised eternal punishment in stench and fire; surely nothing could be worse than working in this place.

But the flood had been worse. I nearly drowned. Now my body aches and I tire easily, so I was sent to Brislingtonl, to mend myself rather than the tunnel. The clean air and beautiful vistas could hardly be more different from the hell under the Thames.

And perhaps it was the will of a benevolent deity that has brought me here, for I have recently heard news of a competition to design a bridge for a nearby location. I do not know why there should be a bridge between the hamlet of Clifton Down and the private estates of Leigh Woods (no one argues with a dead man's wishes, especially when he's rich). But it could hardly have been more perfect a subject for my contemplations as I recover. My previous misfortune seems less awful when I think that it has brought me to the opportunity of this compeition, as surely as bridges or rivers bring us from one place to another.

Already my thoughts soar high above the Avon Gorge. Ideas swirl around my head for a suspension bridge that would have to span a greater distance than any that now exist. I can no longer rest for thinking about it, but I no longer feel I need to. My body is filled with a renewed force, as my mind is busy considering the competing forces that shape a bridge.

I am glad to leave behind the fiery, filthy hells below London in exchange for this chance to conjure up a road elegantly suspended in the air.

This entry intersects with [livejournal.com profile] everywordiwrite's, here.
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"It's like we lost both our kids at once," I've heard my mom say.

(It's only in the past couple of years I started hearing this, so several years after this loss. It's interesting how these perspectives change as time passes.)

I never know what to say or do in response. Usually I just wince. I am sympathetic, but this turn of phrase always hits me like a punch to the kidneys. I know what she means, but...

But I'm here to hear her say these things. We talk on the phone every Sunday -- we have since I left for college at 18 -- and we see each other two or three weeks a year. I know it's not a lot, not when none of us dreamed I'd ever end up this far away, but it's a hell of a lot more than any of us will ever hear from my brother again.

We offered to move the wedding. It was one of the first things Andrew said, bless him, when he realized how close the funeral would be to me emigrating: two months. (It was all so close together that the last thing I ever said to my brother was that he had to get measured for a tuxedo to be in my wedding. Considering how rocky our relationship was, I'm grateful to have something like that as a last memory of him: something mundane and yet an outward sign of how big a part of my life he was, even if we didn't get along very well.) Two months with mourning and family everywhere and Christmas and my birthday and Chris's now-phantom birthday in it. So much all at once. But my parents were certain that we should go on with the wedding as planned, so we did.

And so I left them, much more cruelly than I'd intended to. It was supposed to be okay partly because they still had Chris nearby, with his new degree and his new job and his bubbly blonde girlfriend, the daughter of the pastor at my mom's church, and the prospect of a white picket fence in his future; all of that was supposed to be taken care of by him. Somehow that made it, in my head, more okay for me to go off and cut my hair short and protest unjust wars and kiss girls and have a shambolic work history. I curled up amidst things I could never talk to them about, like a wounded animal slinking into the woods to try to figure out how I could have been told all my life I was smart and yet have dropped out of college when depression and lack of money first started setting themselves up as the major themes of my 20s.

And this is how we are with the people we love: she lost her daughter to adulthood and a distinct personality and 4000 miles of distance, so soon after she lost her son to a meaningless car crash. I don't know how to process her seeming to equate the loss of his life to the way I started to live mine. And we are both more hurt because it's the people closest to us doing this; you can't betray someone if they didn't think better of you in the first place.
hollymath: (Default)
From The Wolves, the Pig, and the Retarded Bunny
“The company guarantees coverage everywhere,” complained the wolf. “But as soon as you walk into the woods, you drop to just one bar. That’s so retarded!”

The pig sighed and stopped walking. She looked down at the bunny. From the way his ears sagged, she knew he had heard.

“Would you mind not using that word?” asked the pig politely.

“What word?” the wolf demanded, holding his phone high in the air.

“‘Retarded.’ You see, my stepson is learning disabled, and it’s hurtful when–”

“Sounds like your stepson needs to grow a thicker skin,” said the wolf.

The pig clutched the bunny’s hand tighter. “He came home a year ago, crying, and asked me, ‘What does retarded mean, mama?’ The kids tease him every day on the bus. He won’t say anything in class anymore, because he’s afraid of being laughed at even more.”

“Tell him to stop being so sensitive,” said the wolf. “You’re not doing him any favors by coddling him.”

“Why can’t other people just stop saying hurtful things?” asked the pig.

The wolf simply growled.

The pig’s shoulders sank slightly, and she walked on.
I'm surprised how often I'm seeing this bullshit about coddling lately.

I don't get paid to be your goddamn emotional babysitter was, I think, about the point where I realized I was going to have to break my informal rule of just clicking on the little X in the top right-hand corner when I come across stuff in LJ Idol I find repellant.

I know: you're not their emotional baby-sitter, I replied. But some words gain weight and power to offend and hurt, and others don't. This is how "but I can call someone a moron and not offend them!" isn't a great philosophy; even if it's true, that doesn't mean it is or "should be" true for every word. You are not owed that. You have no right to use language with no repercussions. No one does.

Next time somebody wants to kick up a goddamn shitfit over "lame" or "dumb" or whatever the fuck....can we PLEASE just let the natural evolution of language take its course? Words will change meaning or drop out of use when their current incarnates are no longer relevant to society or just naturally evolve into something else.

There's nothing natural about it. We do it. Language is entirely a function of those who use it, it has no existence outside us. And we have choices over what words we use and how we use them. We're not swept away on a tide of linguistic evolution, we are the agents of that evolution. The final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean. Not you all by yourself. Not the "PC brigade" -- to use a term their detractors do, or "people who try not to be assholes", to use a term we'd be more likely to use ourselves -- either. Everyone.

I don't usually get involved in conversations like this. And this one was hopeless from the start; the LJ entry in question also contained So if you're all up on the "OMG THIS POST IS OPPRESSING ME!1!11" bandwagon, then no, I'm NOT going to take you seriously. I'm not a big social-justice activist, I don't think of myself as the "PC" (you have to use the scare quotes!) troll that parts of this post was being addressed to.

I love language; I think words are our most powerful tools. But they are just that: tools. But language is what we make it. We are not at the mercy of its whims. Words are not living creatures; they experience no natural selection. Langauge can be said to evolve in a metaphorical way, but it'd be one of artificial selection, just as the domestication of plants and animals is: both has been done by and for the benefit of humans. Still, words, unlike living things, don't have wild versions that can be tamed to be made useful for humans -- words are no more "natural" than skyscrapers or anthropogenic climate change or any other artefacts of our culture.

This "freedom of speech" that so many unpleasant people bang on about means that we are all responsible for our words too; no one else is making us choose them over some other word or none at all.

I hope I haven't made a foolish choice in my use of these words here. But I'm trying to do my bit for the evolution of language, away from the hurtful things.
“Look at this,” she said. “These people are offering a reward for their lost dog, but they can’t even spell. They’re so retarded!”

The pig sighed. She looked ahead, then looked down at her stepson. The bunny was staring at the ground, but she could tell by the set of his ears that he had heard.

“Would you mind not using that word?” asked the pig.

“What word?” the wolf demanded, ripping the flyer off the tree.

“‘Retarded.’ You see, my stepson is learning disabled, and it’s hurtful when people use that word in such a derogatory way.”

“I see,” said the wolf. “Please educate me so that I can decide whether or not to stop using this word that hurts you and your stepson.”

The pig’s shoulders slumped a little more, but she looked up at the wolf and did her best. For the next hour, while the bunny played in the dirt, she talked about the challenges her stepson had faced. She talked about how hard it was to get people to treat her stepson with respect, how society treated the mentally challenged as a joke, as stupid or defective.

“I see,” said the wolf. “But don’t we all have challenges? Don’t we all have someone who refuses to respect us? Don’t we all get laughed at sometimes? You might be surprised to know that I have a very good friend who’s a bunny, and she uses the word ‘retarded’ all the time.”

“What does it cost you to use a different word?” asked the pig.

“Nothing,” said the wolf. “But you have failed to adequately educate me, so I will continue to use the word that hurts you and your stepson.”

The pig took the bunny’s hand, and they walked on, leaving the wolf to laugh at the flyer.
When it comes down to it, you don't know what baggage words carry for people. They may have been chased home from school by kids shouting it. They may have been told it's the reason they didn't get a job or couldn't buy a house. They may have been shouted it by a vindictive ex who emptied the joint bank account or a social worker who took their children away. They may have heard it as they were punished by the people who were supposed to care for them as a child. They may have heard it as they were beaten or tortured. They may panic or have flashbacks when they encounter the word.

You're very much right... but since when is it everyone's responsibility to carry everybody else's baggage in the first place? Sounds like a good recipe for lots of broken backs, endless exhaustion, and not much else. Not everyone can shoulder the burdens of the world, nor should they. Everyone has their own burden to carry already.

In fact I have always found precisely the opposite to be true. I've hardly ever had a problem that hasn't been lessened by sharing, and sympathy, and support (if I am able to seek and receive them on my own terms, rather than what people, however well-meaning, consider "helping" if it isn't what I want).

And that's why I try to support other people in turn. Those most affected by racism, classism, sexism, homo- bi- trans- and other "phobias," ableism, sizeism, ageism, and every other kind of discrimination you can think of... all those people need all the help they can get. I, with my invisible disabilities and as a bi person in a mixed-gender relationship with the privileges of state-sanctioned marriage, experience relatively little of this soul-killing prejudice (though those invisible things carry their own problems, of course, but they usually mean I have the choice to jump in rather than being pushed in to dealing with them) so when I have the energy to speak out, I try to do so.

And even though this was a frustrating and difficult conversation, there are some consolations. I might have got a passerby reading that thread to replace "lame" with another word (I suggest "suboptimal," a good all-purpose word made popular by some of my friends in classic phrases such as "decidedly suboptimal"). When I talked about this conversation with someone close to me, she was very kind and sympathetic. Her words and actions helped me remember that I have wonderfully good friends... mostly in groups that society doesn't value as highly as others.

Society is missing out. I'm glad I'm not.
They were almost home when they spotted a third wolf. This wolf was reading a book and laughing. “Oh my goodness,” he said, glancing up. “The grown-ups in this book are so retarded!”

The pig sighed and stopped walking. She looked down at the bunny. His ears were now completely flat on his back.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d stop using that word,” said the pig.

“What word?” the wolf demanded, slipping a leaf into the pages to mark his place.

“‘Retarded.’ You see–”

“You can’t tell me what to say. I have freedom of speech!”

“I understand that,” said the pig. “But I’m trying to tell you that you’re hurting people by using that word.”

“It doesn’t hurt me, and I can say whatever I want! If you don’t like it, you should go back to pig country.”

The pig looked at the bunny, who was staring at the dirt. She looked at the wolf, who towered over them both. She looked past the wolf, to where the path emerged from the woods into a field.

The pig took a deep breath and said, “Mister wolf, I understand what you’re saying, but you are hurting my stepson, and you are hurting me. Mister wolf, you are a jackass.”

The wolf bared his teeth. “You can’t say that to me!”

“I thought we had freedom of speech,” said the pig.

One of the wolf’s ears flicked backward. “Well, you’ll never convince people to do what you want by calling them names.”

“So how should I convince them?” the pig asked. She waited, but the wolf didn’t answer. He opened his book and continued to read.

The pig looked at her stepson. Her shoulders slumped lower. Holding the bunny’s hand tightly, she walked on.
it's the absolute height of entitlement for someone to come along and say "this word bothers me, not because of its contextual meaning or widely accepted definition, but because of a personal issue I have, and therefore you can't say it."

It's not "you can't say it" but "if you do, you are an asshole." That's the consequence of your actions. You're willing to expend thousands of words just to argue that you should be allowed unthinkingly to say a couple of words. I bet you could expend that effort in eradicating "bitch" from your vocabulary and have it done by Tuesday. But in choosing to use that energy on arguing... you do kinda seem like an asshole.

Besides, since you seem so convinced that these words have "widely accepted definitions" that are so innocuous, why do you have to have this conversation? There wouldn't be any outrage over misogynist or ableist language in the first place if
lots of people didn't believe the words to have those meanings.

For someone who said but one of the things that gets me so worked up about the PC debates whenever they crop up is the seeming assumption from the pro-PC crowd that there are only two possible reasons why a person would not conform to the PC language standards: malice (they're actively trying to oppress people), or ignorance (they're unaware of the issues\blind to their own privilege\just need to be educated on the subject matter, etc), he didn't give me any reason to think he'd done anything but traded his ignorance for malice. Saying "I'm not doing anything malicious" isn't enough to make it so. A lot of malice is done with those words on someone's lips.

At the end of the story about the pig and the bunny, nothing has changed. None of the three wolves have made the slightest indication they are interested in changing their minds. There's no epiphany, no satisfaction, no new friends made or lessons learned. And this is why I like the story of the wolves and the pig and the retarded bunny so much: if it had a neat, tidy ending, I'd feel cheated. I'd feel dismayed because this would be more unrealistic to me than talking animals. As it is, it's dismaying, but not despondent.
When they reached the edge of the field, the bunny looked up and said, “Mama?”

The pig scooped the bunny into her arms and hugged him, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. “What is it, sweetheart?”

“I love you.”

For a long time, the pig merely stood there, holding her stepson. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Slowly, she straightened her shoulders. She kissed the bunny on the head and pet his ears. “I love you too.”
Helping with the burden of others' emotional baggage doesn't break our backs. It builds us up.
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This is a fictional rendering of something that keeps happening in real life. May we soon live in a world where such stories are entirely fictional.

How do you prove you're queer?

I'd lived so long in secret from those who'd kill me, and now the secret could kill me anyway.


They sneer as they dissect my life. They took my letters, my diary, my Facebook password. As if my queerness lived there.

Diva's not one of the magazines strewn around my bedroom floor. If I'd known it was that easy to prove myself I'd have bought it, even though it's all pink and about weddings.

I fantasise arguments where I ask them if they read straight magazines.

"All other magazines are straight magazines," they tell me, and the fantasty implodes.


They asked my friends where we went clubbing.

My friends told me it reminded them of, back in the day, the ones who looked straight getting asked by the bouncers "What magazines do you read?" Their camp friends suddenly coming down with coughing fits to cover the words "Say 'Pink Paper'!"

It's not like that now, my friends reassure me. It's not a fairground ride with a sign that has a line on it, saying "You must be at least this gay to ride this ride."

I look in their eyes and they seem to believe it. They're sure I'll be fine.


As if it weren't bad enough already that I don't have a girlfriend, it'd be easier if I did. Preferably a pretty white girl with big eyes and stylish long hair who could write letters to my MP, get her picture in newspapers and get sympathy. But who would want to date me? How could I date anyone without thinking I was using her as a human shield?

I just kiss girls in the clubs. They have such soft lips, and hair that smells nice.

I kiss boys too, but in the dark. They smell good too. They never know they're my deepest secret.

One drop of "straightness" is enough to banish me from here. One drop of queerness is enough to kill me there.


Of course I know that as soon as the judgement comes down against me they will tell me to "be discreet," but knowing that doesn't make it hurt any less. Maybe a little part of me never really believed anyone could say something so stupid until I heard it with my own ears, being demanded of me.

As if I'd never thought of that. As if I hadn't tried that.

As if I could do it now. There's been a little campaign on Twitter and Tumblr to save me. People are saying nasty things about Theresa May again. It's very sweet, and I know they mean well, but it also fills my heart with dread. The internet is global, and they keep mentioning the country I'm from. Maybe they don't know we have internet cafes and smartphones there too.

Maybe they don't know how many people have fists and feet and guns and everyone on their side.


I had to spend so long trying to convince one country I'm queer, how can another ever believe I'm not?
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(an LJ Idol entry)

Like so many other saints, St. Valentine was probably not a real person. Or he may have been anything up to 14 different people. But it's still possible none of them were really him.

Hardly anybody knows this.

What everybody knows about St. Valentine is much more interesting. Even from the age where I was reading picture books about saints because there was nothing to do at my grandma's house, I remember St. Valentine.

Gather round in the warmth of the electrons and let the internet tell you the story:
Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius the Cruel was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. He believed that the reason was that roman men did not want to leave their loves or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. The good Saint Valentine was a priest at Rome in the days of Claudius II. He and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married couples, and for this kind deed Saint Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off.
Sort of a cozy story isn't it? The kind of thing that makes you happy you're somewhere warm and that your head is unlikely to be cut off. And that modern rulers don't still prevent people from getting married. Right?

The commercialization that has made Valentine's Day the beast it is today still peddles the narrative of twitterpation as the only way to go about love and romance. Yet as soon as you question one aspect of hegemonic heterosexuality they all fall apart.

Does anyone else get the feeling that the stereotypical ultra-conservatives who shout "Marriage is between one man and one woman!" wouldn't need to be so vehement if this were really true? You don't get people shouting "Water is wet!" with that same kind of crazed vehemence in their eyes. No one needs to, because that's just a boring old fact.

Human laws aren't the same as scientific laws. Water's a chemical compound that'd be the same anywhere in the universe; marriage is parochial and arbitrary like all human ideas. There is nothing preventing marriage between two men or two women. There is nothing intrinsic limiting marriage to two people. There's no need for us to think everybody has to be either a man or a woman with no other possibilities.

Sure there are people who don't believe this, just like there are people who don't "believe" in evolution or climate change or the effectiveness of good sexual health education. Those things still exist because they are too big to care what any puny human thinks.

Like the emperor happy to shed others' blood while ruining their prospect of a family, these "leaders" and politicians and "community spokespeople" want to control everyone else. And they currently do so with a large measure of success: human laws are not as immutable as scientific laws, but changing them still takes a lot of work from a lot of humans for a long time. But that work is going on, and it's gaining momentum. I see evidence of it all the time.

And I swear some of these angry zealots see it too, and know that the tide of history is against them.

Parents embarrass their children partly because that's how quickly things change; when my parents were born, people of color couldn't marry white people in most of the the U.S. When their parents were born, American women couldn't vote. These things seem as old-fashioned and quaint to me as Roman emperors and the stories of martyrs in my grandma's old picture book. The children of my friends will probably grow up boggling that we all lived in a world were same-gender marriage was such a big deal. Our battles will quickly seem outdated, and then our success will be complete.

An emperor can ban marriage all he likes, but he can't ban the things that make people want to get married -- that catch in the throat when you see someone, the way you can't stop thinking about them, the way you smile when they are mentioned, the abiding conviction that the huge harsh world is more bearable with them at your side, holding your hand.

That emperor can't keep other people from being sympathetic to that feeling (perhaps remembering their own optimism and excitement when love is new); sympathetic enough to marry people in secret if need be; sympathetic enough to be telling ourselves stories about this hundreds of years later, with everyone rooting for the secret love rather than the stupid cruel emperor.
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

God created the world, and everything in it. And God was perfect, so it followed that his creation was perfect.

Therefore, it followed that Thomas shouldn't have been here. He shouldn't have carefully closed the door of his garden shed behind him, he shouldn't have been sizing up the two vivid pink flowers in front of him. And he certainly shouldn't have been delicately applying the pollen of the sweet william to the pistil of the carnation.

Living things had never been made to cross this way before, not successfully. And little wonder, most would think, as this proved that we have the plants and animals we do for a reason. If there should have been such a flower as this combination he wondered about now as he looked from the sweet william to the carnation and back again, then God would have made it. And he didn't.

With a tiny brush, Thomas swept up pollen from the sweet william flowers, and delicately deposited it on the pistils of the other plant.

He didn't realize he was holding his breath until he finished the act, and slowly sighed out the air in his lungs. Perhaps an observer would've thought it sounded like a sigh of relief, but Thomas knew he was breathing out the last air he would ever draw in as an innocent man.

What God didn't make, he would.

In Hoxton, Thomas kept a vineyard with more than fifty varieties of grapes. People came to his nursery to wonder at all the exotic plants he grew from overseas, including one of the first banana trees seen in England.

But these wonders of nature didn't come easily. Lost in the post, his suppliers told him. You'll have it next month, they told him. Oh, unlucky, a disease struck down all those rare beautiful blooms you paid me so highly for, Mr. Fairchild, they told Thomas before he saw another nurseryman showing of those very plants, for a handsome price naturally!

But he wasn't going to get too dramatic about this. He had to be patient.

He waited until he could plant the seeds that this carnation now produced, and then he waited for them to grow.

Some days he could hardly wait, such was his excitement at his anticipated accomplishment. Some days he was very solemn, wondering why he thought his experiment would work better than previous attempts to cross one kind of flower with another. Some days, he wasn't even sure whether he wanted his new plant to grow or not.

A flower grew.

He carefully pressed it between sheets of paper to preserve it, and looked for a large book in which to place his paper-wrapped plants in. Not his Bible. He couldn't bear that. he reached for another weighty tome.

Thomas should have been exultant at the existence of his flower, but he lived in dread. It was no miracle, but blasphemy. His audacious act weighed heavily upon him.

With that pink flower, that beautiful abomination, in his mind he made an offering to St Leonards in Hackney Road, his parish church, so that a sermon would be delivered every Whitsun on the wonderful works of God and the certainty of the creation.

Even if his thoughts wandered during those sermons, he couldn't have imagined all the implications of what human endeavors could be traced back to his little experiment with the pink flowers. When he created the first man-made hybrid in 1717, it would be a century before people would have the metaphor of Frankenstein for meddling in the creation of life. Now the same unease ascribed to Thomas Fairchild that led him to commission the Whitsun "Vegetable Sermon" is evident in wariness toward genetically modified food.

All of this can be traced back to Thomas Fairchild, and the paradigm shift from "Nature: created in perfection" to "Nature: some assembly required."

For plok

Jan. 23rd, 2012 07:47 pm
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

She loved the smell of diesel particularly.

Well, that and the power, but she didn't want to tell the police that.

"....massive traffic jams on the M6 due to an overturned lorry between junctions--" she heard before someone reached through the open door of the cab and switched the radio off. She was disappointed; she'd been looking foreard to hearing about herself on the radio.

She kind of hoped the radio would be hearing more from her soon.

The police officers on the scene were already asking her Why did you do this? She imagined Eddie Mair asking her.

It wasn't that bad a crash, really. She hadn't hit any other cars. And her cargo wasn't inflammable, or toxic, or anything dangerous like that. You got lucky, the police officers told her. She nodded. They resented her for not being in hysterics. She was still imagining the Radio 4 interview.
Why did you do this job? How could you do it?"

"Well you see, on all my work capability assessments, the private company that the UK's Department for Work and Pensions farmed out these assessments to, which judges its success by how many people it can get off disability benefits, which disregards the professional opinions of doctors and specialists working with the people in the system, which was found impersonal, mechanical and lacking in clarity....they kept telling me i had no difficulty seeing."

"No difficulty?"

"Those were the exact words in the letter I got after the second 'assessment'. Which by the way happen at irregular intervals, including just after I won an appeal and was, again, told that there was nothing wrong with me."

"Sounds like you made a pretty sudden recovery then!"

"Yeah, quite; seems my poorly-formed optic nerves and abnormal visual cortex and weak eye muscles just sorted themselves right out in the month between when I was awarded benefits and when they were taken away again. I mean, that must be what happened..."

"So, rather than appealing the decision... you got a job as a lorry driver?"

"Well, why not? I mean, until this point I'd obviously not tried to drive. It would've been illegal for me to drive."

"Well yes, it says here you were bilnd at birth and your vision isn't all that correctable even with glasses."

"Exactly. My visual impairment was always such a hindrance for me! Not being able to drive myself out of the farmland I grew up in was the worst. If only I'd known then that I had no difficulty seeing! Here I had teachers getting my textbooks on tape, and my parents refusing to let me play sports because they thought I'd get hurt! But I never guessed that I have no difficulty seeing! Doctors and specialists and expensive consultants at the Mayo Clinic and everything, they thought I had tons of difficulty seeing! They don't know why I can see at all."

"So how were you able to get this job driving these big lorries?"

"I interview well."

"But...this is really serious. If blind people are driv--"

"Partially sighted, Eddie. Says so right here on my Certificate of Visual Impairment. I'm only legally blind!"

"Er, right, sorry... but if people who are driving lorries can't see where they're going..."

"Oh I can see where I'm going! I can see the road and everything. And the other cars, more or less. They tend to get out of the way though if they see me coming. I mean, you wouldn't catch me driving a Mini! That'd be so dangerous! Nobody would care about running into me then!"


"As it is, all I have to worry about is staying on the road. Like in those old arcade games I used to play; I was really bad, I'd drive over whole rows of pixelated palm trees along the side of the road. Remember the cars would just suddenly appear, nearby, because they didn't have the computing power to make them realisitically approach in the distance? Though it pretty much looks like that for me in real life, too. You know! [she laughs] All of a sudden, wham!, there's a car right there up ahead next to you!"


"It's better than the appeal process! Even though it has a really high sucess rate, you know -- seventy, eighty percent -- which just shows you how terrible these assessments are in the first place."

"If it's such a terrible system, why hasn't anyone brought this up before?"

"Well, people have. The Liberal Democrats, at their last Federal Conference, actually passed a motion precisely about these assesments and another on provision of adult social care. Since they're a party of government, I can hope this will make a difference, but I have been made very cynical by my experience with this system. The huge numbers of people who are failed by the disability benefits system more generally have been highlighted recently by the 'Spartacus Report,' an uprising of sick and disabled people organizing themselves through social media, when the government wouldn't listen to them and mainstream media wanted nothing to do with the movement. Why hasn't anyone brought this up before? Because I guess you think that a blind woman driving a big truck down a motorway is the first thing worth paying attention to."

"That's a bit harsh, don't you th--"

"Well, you think this kind of thing happens in isolation? You think I wouldn't love to be told 'there's nothing wrong with me'? I want nothing more than for that to be true. But it isn't, and if I have to live in a system that tells me lies are truth, my very existence point out that absurdity. I can't help it."
And with that, her reverie was broken; the interview vanished as if in a puff of smoke
And then, the girl on the side of the motorway, with police radios crackling and the smell of diesel filling her nostrils, disappeared too. Because she is just a figment of my imagination, a length to which I have not gone...but otherwise I am her and everything she says is as true, as real as you are.
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

My mom thinks Karen is going to die.

She has breast cancer, and Lynn (Neil's first wife, you know) had breast cancer. It got better, but then it came back. "They say it's in my back," she said, and she died from it a couple of months later.

My aunt is worried she's going to get dementia.

She might have to have heart surgery, and her dad had to have heart surgery some years ago and then he got dementia. so she doesn't want to have the surgery.

I find my family very frustrating to deal with because they tell me I'm smart and leave me alone with books for my whole childhood and sned me off to school and then I can't talk to them about anything I learn. Not only can I not use the word RISIBLE when I get it in Scrabble (because my mom won't know it, and there's not even a dictionary in the house to consult), but I can't argue with these stories. I can't be counterintuitive.

Never mind that the surgeons took a lot of tissue surrounding that immediately affected with Karen's cancer, in hopes of catching it all; Lynn relapsed and so my mom talks about Karen she's doomed. Her son is getting married next year and she and he've had a falling-out over it, and he didn't even want to come see his parents for Christmas, his own parents, and now my mom's sure Karen won't even be around for the wedding, and how's that going to make him feel? This is all part of the narrative too, the powerful story, the intuition. And I can't be counterintuitive.

Never mind that my aunt doesn't have the same thing wrong with her that my grandpa does and would need a different kind of surgery, that my aunt's always a dreadfully pessimistic person who has no trouble having the courage of really odd convctions (she told my husband that he doesn't get pork chops much in England, when they are one of his favorites and a perfectly ordinary food, and also that Manchester, where we live, doesn't have any humidity). She made family portraits happen because she's not sure how much longer she'll be around to be in them, and i can't tell her about the self-fulfilling prophecies. I can't counter her intuition.

I already have to bite my tongue when anything political comes up (oh these Mexicans are disgusting, Al Franken's the one who committed election fraud, I don't know why there are all these gay people these days...), to not even be able to call my old friends logic and the scientific method to my aid, to send me off to get educated them make me listen to stories that sound like they've been told since we, as a species, were just getting the hang of fire or pointed sticks, is as maddening as having an itch under my skin that I can't scratch.

These kinds of unexamined beilefs are why we have relgion and politics and other pernicious human endeavors that are about how good a story you can tell more than what's good or true or useful.
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

Apparently the world will end on my birthday next year.

If this is the last birthday I get -- and my 30th as well! -- I think it is not asking too much for me to hope it is better than last year.

If I said "I spent my last birthday in Paris" you'd probably think I was a lucky rich girl, practicing the French phrase my college roommate taught me was most important ("Une baguette s'il vous plaît!"), elegantly drinking coffee in a sidewalk café, walking around the Louvre with joy and wonder...

Perish the thought.

Some folks say that Mayan end-of-the-world happens on December 21 rather than 22, so perhaps it's fitting that this story begins on December 21, the day before my birthday.

Andrew and I were supposed to change planes at Charles de Gaulle. It's easier since the TSA has ensured that connections in the U.S. are a nightmare, especially with checked bags -- and with a husband who always seems to get flagged up as suspicious, probably because of his beard, his lack of an American passport, or his aspie fidgeting). We were meant to be in La France for less than two hours.

But that short layover doomed us; when our flight was delayed leaving Manchester, we landed just about in time to see our plane to Minneapolis take off without us. All because of a couple of inches of snow on the ground. I missed Minnesota even more then: it didn't grind to a halt for a light dusting of snow!

We waited in the longest lines I have ever had the misfortune to stand in -- queue-jumpers just behind us nearly caused a multilingual fistfight -- only to be told there were no more flights to Minneapolis; there were no flights to North America all day that weren't fully booked. The holidays, you know. The weather.

The staff were as helpful as they could be on what must have been a rough day at work, but as I watched them talk on the phone, walk to and fro, and go about their jobs, I resented them mightily. They knew there'd be an end to their shift and they were a métro ride, or whatever, from home. These people knew where their underwear was. They could get themselves to their beds.

I stood in a short line -- about an hour, I think -- to find out what happened to our luggage. By this point Andrew was so tired (our allegedly early-morning flight had meant only a few hours' sleep) he was in tears and I sent him to sit down somewhere. I might as well have sat down myself; we saw one of our suitcases in February, one never again.

We took the wrong bus from the airport, in search of the hotel whose name was printed on our vouchers, so had to stay on the bus until it wound its way around back to the airport again and we could try another one. I never did catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, which as we all know from movies can be seen from any window in Paris. Of course we weren't really in Paris anyway; we were where airports always spring up: miles out, amidst scattered hotels, multi-lane swathes of concrete and industrial parks. They look the same all over the world. All over the universe, probably.

Andrew and I couldn't even brush our teeth, but we showered despite the lack of clothes to change into and slept for something like 14 hours. I woke up in the night to pee, wondering if I the odometer of my life had ticked over to 29 yet. I felt outside of space and time. I didn't know where I was, or when I was. I didn't belong.

This year we're flying on my birthday, and back to Charles de Gaulle rather than the much-preferred Schipol. I'm not a superstitious person, but I'm worried. I don't pray, I don't believe in karma, I don't think the world will end on my thirty-first birthday...

...but if you do, send me a good thought?


Dec. 7th, 2011 05:44 pm
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

The magician has
up his sleeves. The politican, regretfully, has
no scope for increase
in social welfare spending. There's
no food in this house,
whines the teenager, bored with
an array of modern convenience and process-
ed foods.
I loved you for years and I
didn't even get this lousy t-shirt.

Science tells me nothing
is woven into the fabric
of our inescapable universe. Before the big bang,
and after the last black hole evaporates, there is
a lack so complete and thorough
we have never needed a word for it.

But science is no excuse for heartless
politicians, ungrateful
teenagers, magicians
who wouldn't know magic if it bit them in the eye
or you.
hollymath: (Default)
(an LJ Idol entry)

My parents are inconceivable.

That's what you call it, right? They couldn't conceive.


No one likes to think of their parents having sex.

People look at you quizzically when the subject comes up and you say "I'm convinced my parents have never had sex."

I think Andrew's convinced too; he says my dad looks like he has heard of sex and might have liked to try it once but he seems okay that he didn't.


It's actually a really invasive thing, adopting kids. And this after all the tests and everything necessary to ascertain that they couldn't conceive a child which led up to them wanting to adopt. Their finances were scrutinized, people came to their house to make sure they had a decent place and room for a baby and all that.

Lots and lots and lots of questions asked.

It only got worse when it was discovered that I was blind. I got a caseworker from State Services for the Blind. I think my mom was offended that they were being checked up on to make sure they weren't neglecting or hurting the blind baby, but unfortunately not everyone finds that as inconceivable as my parents do.

They had to wait a whole year to finalize my adoption (and not nearly so long for my brother's) because it is anticipated that the prospective adoptive parents will want to give back their imperfect child.


Yes, my parents discovered I was blind, after having me at home for days or weeks. I find it inconceivable that no one told them. The adoption agency must have known.

My mom kept all the cards they got congratulating them on the new baby. I looked at these once and thought a lot of them hinted at the hard times that people saw ahead for my parents in raising a disabled child. My parents must have thought about this too, but they've never begrudged me the fights that had to be fought.

(Indeed they could be a little too enthusiastic in those fights, believing the Mayo Clinic was somehow good for me when I thought it nothing but a torture chamber, and for a while my mom was famous for being the one who yelled at and hit the side of a (non-moving, driverless) bus. I was on the bus and she thought the other kids were picking on me. They were, but that was nothing compared to having the crazy mom.)


My mom said a lot of people told my parents to give me back, at first. Friends of theirs, people from church. She's never told me who they are, but I'm sure some of them still say hello to me when I'm back home, still ask my mom how I'm doing.

"Would you give your child back?" my mom says she told them all at the time.

"Well, no," these biological parents replied. "But that's different."

"No," my mom said. "It isn't."


Grandma P has told me a story of talking to my other grandma, M, at some birthday or Christmas or something.

"I have one real grandchild and three adopted grandchildren," Grandma M is supposed to have said to Grandma P. (The "real" one was the youngest, born ten years after me, and I never knew what a disappointment the rest of us had been to her until then.)

"I have nine grandchildren," my Grandma P said.

"Yes but how many of them are really yours?" She knew of course that at least my brother and I couldn't be.

"I have nine grandchildren," Grandma P said.


Lots of things about adoption are strange and mind-boggling. Maybe that's why we use the word inconceivable for strange and mind-boggling things.


hollymath: (Default)

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