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.
hollymath: (Default)
For English we have to write something every day this week. Mrs. L. says just write whatever we think of. Kids started asking right away how many sentences they had to write but I don't care. I'm not afraid of sentences.

Today mom taught me and the little girl cousins how to play hopscotch, but I was more interested in drawing on the sidewalk than playing the game. Lines and angles and numbers are more interesting than jumping around. Anyway I get tired if I play outside too much. I would rather stay inside and read a book but Mom says that is not healthy. I say she stays inside but she gives me that look, the one that means "whatever just happened better not happen again" so I don't get to find out why it's different for her. Lots of things are different for adults than they are for kids though. Adults say "adult," for one thing, but kids say "grownup." Except me.

Today I am reading another book about dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs. Adults always get really excited when I have to tell them I like dinosaurs. Their faces brighten up and they say something like "I liked dinosaurs when I was a kid too." There are so many who say this I don't know why they all think they are special, like they are the first person to ever think of dinosaurs. Then they say "My favorite was T. rex. He's pretty good, isn't he?"

I tell them my favorite is Oviraptor, and their faces look different and their voices sound different. "I've never heard of that," they say. Or "Raptor? Like in Jurassic Park?" That's what my uncle Sean said at the stupid family reunion I had to go to and waste a whole Saturday.

Mom shouts at me if I am sarcastic to grownups but sometimes I can't help it. I think she worries that I might seem smarter than someone taller than me. So I try to be careful and say "No, Jurassic Park had Velociraptors. They're totally different." Then I walked away, to pretend to be interested in my cousins playing hopscotch. They hadn't drawn the lines very carefully so the angles were all wrong, but nobody seemed to care. Except me.

Oviraptor's my favorite because it is a dinosaur with a story about scientists being wrong. Science is great but everybody makes mistakes, not just me, so I try to remember this when I feel bad. The mistake they made with Oviraptor is calling it "egg thief." Only one oviraptor fossil has been found, and it was right by a nest of what the scientists thought was a different kind of dinosaur eggs. They made up this story in their heads about how the Oviraptor was coming to steal the eggs of the other dinosaur and eat them.

Later on they realized it was just a story in their heads and the Oviraptor was probabaly just looking after its own eggs. Duh! I could have told them that.

So anyway, it is still stuck with the name Oviraptor, egg eater, and no one knows much else about it. I think that is the other reason I have picked Oviraptor as my favorite, because who knows what amazing things could have happened in its life?

I bet it wouldn't like the name Oviraptor though. It's not really fair, it's like the time everyone called Anna a crybaby and she was only crying because her dog got run over by that car but she didn't tell anyone and then when she did they all felt bad about calling her names. Does anyone feel bad about calling Oviraptor names? I think I feel bad, sometimes. Even though I didn't call it that because I am not a scientist.

Mrs. L. said we had to write something every day this week but I don't know if she meant the school week or the whole week. Sorry, Mrs. L.

Actually a cool thing happened today, which is I learned how to make chalk out of eggs! You can't use the chalk on chalkboards but you can on sidewalks. Like for playing hopscotch. Or just drawing out the hopscotch and then not playing it!

What you do is you take six egg shells after you have used up the eggs out of them. You crush them up with a rock. Then you mix up a little spoon full of flour and a spoon full of VERY HOT water so be careful and you stir them all up in a little bowl and add a big spoon full of the ground up egg shells. You have to wait a long time to dry it. But then I can make a hopscotch pattern for my little girl cousins, and tell them they are walking on egg shells, just like those dumb scientists thought the Oviraptor was doing, but really he was looking out for the little ones, just like I'm looking out for my cousins.
hollymath: (Default)
There once was, as never before...

...someone who got it. She had heard all the stories and couldn't understand why it had taken so long for anyone to learn from this mistake. It was so obvious! How could it be so common?

Every time she heard a new story, she hoped it'd be different.

I remember something that our father told me and that is this:

It never was different. No one saw what she did when she heard these tales. The idea was fresh and waiting for her. Since no one else wanted it, she'd make it welcome.

This is an old story

They might as well all have taken classes on waiting for good lightning strokes, laughing maniacally, and employing assistants from walks of life that would ostracize them from most lines of work. They could have memorized from books those speeches about re-animating the very sinews of life, right down to the fact that they all share the subtext: "I was bullied as a child and there's no motivation like revenge."

I've told you what's coming

They always leave the brain until last! These mad scientists! They obsess lovingly over their stitch-work as they piece the bodies together. They wait for just the right dramatic moment to throw the lever (why is there always a big lever? she wonders), but they treat the brain just an afterthought! The seat of all intellect and reason, the thing that separates us from the animals...! "Oh well we'll just grab any old thing from out of a jar"? This made no sense!

There was, there was not

There wasn't going to be any of that nonsense from her!

Abby started with the brain. How hard could it be? When she considered how often she couldn't remember to return her library books on time, or how unbiddem memories would suddenly pop into her mind (waking up in her grandparents' bed to hear the murmur of adults talking and laughing over their grown-up card games in the next room, feeling all warm and cozy and well-looked-after...it made her sad now to remember it), the human brain wasn't itself very good.

The trick is, you need the glial cells. You can't just string together neurons out of bits of a broken Slinky (if nothing else, she knew that because she'd tried that when she was a kid: knowing she needed wires, and with nothing better to hold it together than glue, stickytape and used bubblegum; she'd lovingly rolled it in the dirt when it got too sticky and added fresh bubblegum when it got too dry). Typical science: we can see the neurons flashing on and off in our fancy MRI machines. They're all pretty, the rest of this might as well be grey goo, so fuck that.

Fuck them. Like magpies, you flash something glittery in front of them and that's all they pay attention to. Even if they don't know why they care about it.

She started with the brain, and the assembly language. She started with the raw ingredients: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, all the greatest hits of the periodic table.

She thought of the Slinky and bubblegum, and crafted lovingly. The best brains are made with care and attention.

Her life had started with the joy and grunting of her parents. Few want to contemplate their elders having sex but it's how we all got here. Except for this. She had joy, but no grunting, and no fellow parent. This creature sprang fully-formed from her intellect.

They have reached their goal, let's settle

She hadn't bothered with all the wrinkly, fiddly bits but she knew she'd created a woman. She named her Norma.

...and three days they ate, drunk and had fun

She taught Norma to eat, and then how to cook. Norma liked to burn toast, and boil eggs (already putting her miles ahead of Abby's ex-husband on culinary usefulness).

And I was there, and drank mead and wine

Abby put away her scientific instruments; they'd served their purpose. The two went to museums and football games and concerts. She taught Norma to talk, and then to read. They shared a joy in words.

And they lived well, and we lived better

Their first kiss was over an Usborne Very First Reading book.

So blissful


May. 5th, 2012 10:12 am
hollymath: (Default)
Oh give him the best wine
And bring on the nymphs
He'll grin all the time
And say "is that all there is?"
They want it now; they want it all
'Cause the satyr can never be sated at all!

From haunches to hooves
Their dancing is crazed
Pipes play, not to soothe,
The savage beast to raise
You can't knock them down, it's you who will fall
'Cause the satyrs can never be sated at all!

When wine and dreams are plentiful
Wjen you're always chasing girls with your friends
When ecstasy is holy and beautiful
And the party never ends
Look down for your hooves and horse-tail and all
You're the satyr who can never be sated at all!
hollymath: (down)
For god's sake, don't read this.

You're connected to the biggest network that's ever existed of things humans have created. Why are you reading this?

Listen to your friend Charlie Brooker.
Every day we humans gleefully churn out yet more books and films and TV shows and videogames and websites and magazine articles and blog posts and emails and text messages, all of it hanging around, competing for attention.
My dear husband used to love Pandora, a streaming music service that records your likes and skips your dislike. Pandora plays you more and more things to see what you thought of them, and then play you more and more things you liked. He loves nothing more than information, so the opportunity to gather so much on music (a close runner-up for things he loves) seemed so obviously a good thing that it took me a while to realize that I actually hated it. I had to click something nearly every time a new song started, to tell it what I liked and what I disliked.

I don't listen to music this way; music is the soundtrack to the movie of my life, it's not something I want to think about amassing data in a spreadsheet somewhere. I want disposable pop music I love to listen to even if it has no cultural merit because it reminds me of that summer I heard the song everywhere and I was happy. I want to appreciate music like I did when I copied my three-year-old brain's favorite song from my dad's record onto a tape in my Fisher-Price cassette player, its brightly-colored microphone next to the hi-fi's speaker. I want to love something like my brother did when he watched MTV with the the VCR poised to record the latest Backstreet Boys single, so he could play it endlessly in his bedroom while he painstakingly learned the dance they were doing.
Without leaving my seat I can access virtually any piece of music ever recorded, download any film ever made, order any book ever written. And the end result is that I hardly experience any of it. It's too much. I've had it with choice.

Here's what I want: I want to be told what to read, watch and listen to. I want my hands tied. I want a cultural diet. I want a government employee to turn up on my doorstep once a month, carrying a single book for me to read. I want all my TV channels removed and replaced by a single electro-pipe delivering one programme or movie a day. If I don't watch it, it gets replaced by the following day's selection. I want all my MP3s deleted and replaced with one unskippable radio station playing one song after the other. And every time I think about complaining, I want a minotaur to punch me in the kidneys and remind me how it was before.
Like all of us in the digital world, I am enmired in choice. I stink of choice. I am sucked in by choice, to a hell of everyone on the bus existing in the world of their own earbuds, DVR, the long tail, Spotify, print-on-demand, free Kindle books, and the horrible blinking cursor, that tells me I can have whatever I want as soon as I type it in to this innocuous little search box.

Actually, you know what I think is the worst example in the pit of filth we call modern culture? Spoilers. The concept of spoilers wouldn't have occurred to anybody older than me. Before VCRs, if you didn't see last night's TV, you damn well hoped someone at school or work would catch you up on what you missed. As my friend Alex said of Doctor Who, “I can still remember the recurring nightmares... You might think that's a bad thing, but in the days before video players nightmares were the only way to see Doctor Who again, and they were brilliant!”

I just feel that kids are lacking this sort of character-building experience now, thanks to YouTube (they might be having all kinds of other character-building experiences thanks to YouTube, but it's nothing I'd like to think about, although I imagine they'll be waxing nostalgic and curmudgeonly about how YouTube sometimes took a few seconds to load, when their own kids have the internet beamed directly into their brains on their way to live in Martian colonies, or whatever human society up to by then).
In short: I've tried more. It's awful. I want less, and I want it now.
I don't have decision paralysis. I have decision resentment. Like the money-saving innovation of fast-food restaurants in getting you to bus your own table, like the self-service checkouts that are always telling you there's an “unexpected item in bagging area” and making you type the word “banana” on a wonky touchscreen because anything they can't put a bar code on is now inconvenient, I make myself miserable by remembering that life was better when I didn't have to sort out every single little thing myself.

With the great power of everything instantaneously available on demand comes the great responsibility of needing to hold electronic hands, pour out my soul to soulless algorithms, make endless choices between the devil and the deep blue cesspool.

This entry intersects with [livejournal.com profile] the_day_setup's, here.


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)
It's clichéd to be “moved” by music, but it's true that sound is motion.

Put a glass of wine on top of a speaker. Stick a straw in the glass. Turn up the music. What do you see?

The straw jumps and spins and dances around the glass.

Music makes this the drink that stirs the straw.

It doesn't have to be a wine glass, but wine glasses – besides being appealing to look at and fun to hold – are known for their musical properties: you can coax eerie tones from one by running a finger around the rim, you can try to shatter the glass with nothing more than the power of your singing voice.

All these things demonstrate the resonant frequency of wine glasses. Every object has certain wavelengths at which it vibrates most readily, thanks to its particular shape, composition, and so on. Resonant frequency can be illustrated beautifully in a violin, or disastrously in a bridge that shakes itself apart.

The processes by which we think music really moves us – makes us want to sway, or clap, or dance, or tap our toes, or play air guitar – are nothing to do with this kind of resonance. I don't know if this language has a word for it at all, but German does: funktionslust.

If I have anything in common with a dog chasing a frisbee into seaside froth or a wind-filled sail, it is in music.

It's when I felt part of something bigger than myself, knowing that my heels hit the asphalt at the same time as a hundred others in my high school's marching band, but also being glad that no one else had worn grooves in their clarinet's mouthpiece like my front teeth had on mine. It's when I heard the song written especially for my wedding, full of clever allusions and (considering it was written by a stranger) scarily-accurate details, the poetry of which still gives me goosebumps. It's when I played bass while someone I loved played the drums, and the same kind of energy arced between us as when we were just about to kiss. It's when his convertible's radio played a song whose name, “Born in the U.S.A.,” I couldn't yet read off the LP sleeve when I first called it my favorite; the wind that ruffled my hair as we sped along also dried the silent tears on my cheeks as I pondered the distance from the country of my birth even as my happiness was complete just where I was.

Take that glass of wine off the speaker. Turn the music on again. Turn it up. Whether anyone's drinking the wine, whether it's Richard Wagner or Lady Gaga, you'll raise a smile, start an argument on the difference between a violin and a fiddle, spark a debate about the top five double-A sides, or maybe you'll just be flooded with memories of that time and those people by this song.

If music is the drink, we're all straws.

This entry intersects with [livejournal.com profile] marjory's, here.
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.
hollymath: (i love)
The god Glycon was created by Alexander the False Prophet.

There's a lot to be said for being upfront about one's limitations.

In his snow-leopard-print shoes and Cosbyesque sweater, people queuing up to get in the lecture room for his talk, with the legendary beard and hair and hermity inclinations appropriate to a wild man of the mountains, Alan Moore could be a prophet – if he could be bothered, which he doesn't seem to be – but he'd tell you right up front he's a false one too.

“I'm not a religion,” he said, after musing on that the etymology of the word religion. It's related to ligature and ligament; it's about binding, connecting people, holding together; it doesn't have to be anything spiritual at all. “Marxism is a religion” he offered as an example. This is one reason he's glad no one else worships his second-century Roman glove-puppet snake god.

Still, this non-prophet has a room full of rapt faces soaking up his words

Moore is clear on what's science – the external, material world of physical things and empirical observation – and what's occult – the internal world of thought, imagination, consciousness, and other things that aren't measurable or replicable – but he is no smug skeptic or starry-eyed believer, claiming all of one category is good and the other bad.

They're not mutually exclusive (“You can write better fantasy if you understand science. It helps to be consistent and to know what rules you're breaking”) and he thinks they're both equally useful for storytelling. “I don't care if it's true, if it's good for the idea playground.” Moore doesn't read science-fiction any more, but likes New Scientist, “because the ideas are weirder.”

(I was instantly reminded of how I used to read NS headlines and say it had taken over the job of the Weekly World News. I swear it was something like this Human-frog hybrid reveals autism's secrets story that first drove me to this joking declaration, but the more I followed New Scientist headlines on Twitter, the more scarily apt and less fun the comparison became, and I eventually gave up reading them.)

Humans love to draw lines between “common sense” and “obvious nonsense” all over the maps of our worlds. We only differ in where we think the lines should go. Another of the talks I went to, a smug skeptic one, featured questions that revealed a couple of audience members thought dowsing worked (a guy told us that water has flowing fields of energy, as nonchalantly as he'd have told us his name) but “global warming” is bullshit (another guy asserted it ended in 2005). To that latter declaration, the presenter of this talk only said, “Well, we all have to be careful of these 'intellectual black holes' I was talking about...”

I thought it was a brilliant answer, probably assuring the audience member that he'd exposed an intellectual black hole the presenter had fallen into, but indicating to everyone else that this audience member was an example of the very phenomenon; he'd fallen so deep into a bad idea that nothing further was going to get in or out.

These intellectual black holes can take us to weird places. Looking at pictures of naked people is obviously naughty, but “bubbling” innocuous photos of bikini-clad women can trick your brain into seeing them as if naked. (Which I'd think would be worse, because the viewer is forced to collaborate in the sin; not a passive viewer thereof, but an active participant...but then, I'm not a religious person, so what do I know?) Scientologists get big boats out into international waters to indulge their deviances, Apparently Scientology dictates that sin is terrestrial, so if you're out at sea or up in the air, sin “doesn't count.” Moore related hat he'd once found someone to ask if standing on a chair would be enough height to escape sin (which is a wonderfully scientific reaction really: imagine the contour line maps!) and was told no, not likely. “How about if you were up on a roof?” Moore persisted. “I think that would make it worse!” came the answer. Laughter filled the room, and I added Sin On The Roof to my mental list of good band names.

If all the effort put into finding workarounds to the restrictions imposed on us could be harnessed by more constructive things...well, we'd still probably spend all our time arguing about what those constructive things were. Perhaps this is just as well.

Moore said that, like a lot of people, he was “put off the occult by the kinds of people who go into occult bookshops, who seem to have a gaping emotional void that they are trying to fill with secret knowledge and secret power.” The secrets make the people who know them more special (Moore said he'd feel less special if anyone else started worshipping Glycon). Conspiracy theories are an attempt to make everything, every scrap of data or conjecture or that's just the way the world works-ness fit a single worldview, not to mention offer privileged knowledge to the theorists. Moore insists the occult doesn't have to be that way, and talks of it very movingly (“I wonder if I can write my way around death”) and appealingly (“Writers hate 'where do you get your ideas from?” because we don't know. That's why I got into magic, to find out how ideas work”), but I still can't see myself going anywhere like where he's gone.

Nor can I see myself going the way of the guy in the room full of smug skeptics who talked about dowsing for water with...not zeal or even particular confidence, but the kind of matter-of-fact way I can tell you that the Sun is 400 times bigger than the Moon but also 400 times further away, which is why they look the same size in the sky. I am convinced there is no special reason for this and it doesn't mean anything. It won't even always be true, because the Moon gets incrementally further from the Earth all the time, so one day there will be the last total solar eclipse, after which point the Moon's disk will no longer appear large enough to block out that of the Sun in our sky. I don't think this means we're living at a privileged time of the Earth's history – except inasmuch as I believe any time can be precious – but I do occasionally wonder if the people who do think that aren't having a bit more fun than I am.

But then I remember that science is my solace as well as my intellectual satisfaction. (And it's not just me. Alan Moore also likes to tell the story of Einstein consoling the widow of a fellow physicist, only a couple of months before his own death. "To a physicist such as myself, death isn't really a big thing, because I understand the persistent illusion of transience.") Just this morning I told someone dear to me that she reminded me of Io – pushed and squeezed by huge, constantly changing forces – and she said “YES.” It works for us. When I'm having a bad day and want to be distracted, I'll ask my dear husband to talk to me about black holes, or the nature of time, or even what's going wrong in my own brain chemistry. I fall asleep listening to podcasts and pop-sci audiobooks, and if my dreams are about the evolution of whales or the Big Bang, they are still no less beautiful or moving or useful to me than visions of gods or the energy that may somehow flow along with water under the ground.
hollymath: (Default)
"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.
hollymath: (Default)
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?
hollymath: (Default)
It's difficult to say anything in <140 chars, much less everything

To be “retweeted,” to have one's message copied by a follower and sent out to all their followers on Twitter, is often a delightful little bit of flattery. But it's proven to be such a problem for me lately, because you don't know a lot about a person from one tweet.

When a stranger ripped into me for mentioning Alan Turing without mentioning that he was gayand bullied and mentally ill and this is terrible and I'm probably terrible too for not mentioning it... I got so fed up I am lucky we managed to come to anything like an amicable conclusion. (When e mentioned being at university in the southern U.S. and I was able to tell em that I am immersed in local and cultural awareness of Alan Turing, we seemed to agree that the clash was a matter of our difference in perspective.)

I must admit my first reaction to this random animosity was Oh if only e knew how good I am at this stuff! How I am enough of a geek to understand a little of, and certainly revere, Turing's achievements! How I am a campaigner for the equal rights of sexual and gender minorities! It's not fair! Why come after me when there are all these bad people in the world?!

I find this kind of thinking not only unattractively petulant but distressingly similar to the “a lot of my friends are black” rebuttal to claims of racism, so I try to stay away from it. (When I mentioned this confrontation to a friend yesterday, he said “they didn't look at the first two letters of your username?” [“Bi.”] I said hopefully that they might just realize that a queer person can still be homophobic; being a member of some group is no guarantee against being horrible to that group.)

But it is true that a more comprehensive view of even just what I manage to say on Twitter (which I worryingly often consider a chore and use haphazardly) would reveal that I have discussed at (relative) length the good arguments for and against a proposed pardon for Turing, my general enthusiasm for the radical notion that queers are people too, and much evidence of my own depression, which I think gives me a great empathy for others who have experienced it.

And then a day or two later someone else wrote something I RTed: “The heart of science is the solution of mysteries. The heart of faith is their veneration.” It's simplistic and creates a false dichotomy (two things Twitter excels at) but there was some nugget of interesting thinking there in the varying approaches to mystery.

I waded in, further in the conversation, to say that veneration wasn't necessarily bad; that science just venerates different things. Like what? I was asked. He thought the things on my resulting list – “Replicabiltity. Rigor. The pleasure of finding things out. The scientific method!” – were not venerated but only “useful” or “necessary.”

Worse: “the pleasure of finding things out is just nice to have ;-)” I shuddered when I read that.

While this disagreement was never cleared up as explicitly as my earlier one had been, it was soon clear to me that he was using “venerate” in a strictly religious sense – he listed supposed synonyms, like “deify” and “worship” – while I was using it in the sense of something respected or held in high regard. I even checked a dictionary, both smug and relieved to see that it used this and no other, no religious, language in defining the word.

He kept talking about his atheism and cynicism as if they were a scary dog on a leash he could barely control. It was clear to me that he was defending a point I agree with – part of the value of science is that it isn't supposed to be dogmatic – but he was going about it in such a dreary, ungainly and offputting manner that I found myself committing the horribly patronizing sin of hoping he was young enough to stand a chance of growing out of this.

"Find a better scientific method and you'll be amazed how quickly the old one is tossed aside! ;-)” he said. And there our conversation ended, because I could make no reply.

I still can't. When I think about it I either go completely nonverbal, grunting and shouting, or else I want to write entire pages about how stupid a collection of words this is. (And the emoticon there, which a dear friend who's listened to all these complaints called a patronomicon. Which is my new favorite neologism – not least because I've probably been guilty of it myself; a semi-colon next to a close-parenthesis covers a multitude of small sins, including my favorite one, which is having such a reputation for sarcasm that I can occasionally say what I actually think in no uncertain terms, relying on people to assume that it is merely sarcastic. But, we dislike most in others that which we see in ourselves, eh? And I think we dislike it even more than that when it is so ineptly done as this!)

And again, my fondness for science, and my disinterest in anything to do with religion (I think ignoring it means I've really won; in the way that only afterward realizing I'd eaten pancakes on Ash Wednesday, totally ruining the spirit of Lent and Shrove Tuesday, is better than the way in my childhood I made a point of sneaking candy during Lent, whether I wanted it or not, just to defy the forced “giving up” of candy every year) is clear from what what I say on Twitter. But having to defend myself, even in my own head – “A conversation about the neutrinos not being faster than light after all devolved into my cantankerous views on dark matter and then getting entangled in a friend's lovably incomprehensible theory on hydrogen and galaxies” – is dismaying. I know my attempt to have a scientific worldview is an important part of my identity, but I was still surprised how strongly I reacted when that identity was seemingly brought into question, even if only by someone I don't know over a dispute as small as the definition of one word

A bad Twitter conversation, like a good poem, leaves a lot of spaces between the words. Your brain fills in the spaces with your own thoughts and resonances and connections. One argument is often so similar to another that you can fill in a lot of blanks; you can feel upset and hurt over the intention you perceive behind emoticons, over words that weren't even actually said, this time. Your brain just slots intentions and ulterior motives into place for you, and usually then they're integrated with your memories of something like this stupid Twitter...thing. I wasn't actually told I was homophobic, or a religious apologist, but I can't disconnect those kinds of words and their attendant emotional ripple effects from my memories as I relate them to you now.

I told you all that to tell you this: in an attempt to make myself feel better about these frustrating conversations, I have tried to remember that when I was younger I was prone to saying a lot more stupid things (and I hope when I'm older I'll still be able to say that about how I am now, because I'd like to think I can continue a trend of saying fewer stupid things).

Thoughts that I consider ingrained and essential to me now – like the superiority of science over religion or the respect due to topics like homophobia and mental illness – are not things I always thought. When I think about the paradigm shifts that needed to take place for me to get here from there, I remember that a good confrontation (if only in my head; we didn't have Twitter then) is a fantastic way to delineate one's position. It's not an emotionally healthy method of defining oneself – I've enjoyed a good self-righteous statement of the obvious on more times than I care to count, congratulating myself on things like being nice to people different from me or caring about things that don't directly pertain to how I'm going to spend my afternoon – but it's common and it's easy.

And if these people are engaged in something similar, if they are helped to get where they're going by reinventing poor versions of elegant arguments and rebuttals from books they haven't read and people they haven't talked to, who am I to cast stones at them? I've painstakingly worked from first principles to cobble together wheels that don't roll well enough to move me too far... but they've gotten me closer to the people who already learned how to make sleek, well-crafted, efficient means of locomotion than I would've been if I'd just stayed home.

As much as I try not to be an asshole I will never entirely succeed, but I am grateful for all I have learned on bumpy roads so far.


hollymath: (Default)

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