June 30, 2011

For the Squee

Oh, I love this idea.

I've commented recently on the tendency in F&SF fandom to focus on the things we don't like as though our preferences reflected some inherent flaw in the material. It's amazing how much effort and energy we sometimes put into building up a big head of hate. In fact, that was the impetus for posting a little ditty about not liking things.

Just in time for holiday weekend travel and potentially obligatory family time comes the antidote. From the press release:

Science Fiction and Fantasy professionals Elizabeth Bear, Paul Cornell, Seanan McGuire, Lynne M. Thomas, and Catherynne M. Valente will be premiering a new monthly podcast called the SF Squeecast on June 30, 2011.

In every SF Squeecast episode, our contributors (and occasional guests) will each bring SF works that make them happy -- both new discoveries and old favorites -- for group discussion. Other elements in the podcast include an irreverent question and answer segment and the occasional topical discussion over a virtual cup of tea.

The SF Squeecast combines humor, passion, and professional experience in the SF field into a never-ending convention panel discussion of “don’t miss this” science fiction and fantasy works in all formats. Our regular contributors include two-time Hugo Award-winning and Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear (The Jenny Casey Trilogy, The Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy), Hugo-nominated New York Times Bestselling television, comic book, and prose writer Paul Cornell (Doctor Who- “Human Nature,” Action Comics), Campbell Award-winning, Hugo-nominated New York Times Bestselling author and musician Seanan McGuire (October Daye series, Feed as Mira Grant), Hugo-nominated editor and curator Lynne M. Thomas (Chicks Dig Time Lords, Whedonistas), and Hugo-nominated, Tiptree and Andre Norton Award-winning New York Times Bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (Palimpsest, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making).

They're referring to it as a "podcast of positivity." That doesn't sound as exciting to you as the latest devastatingly bad review of XYZ? Well, it helps if you know the crew. Lynne Thomas (full disclosure: she's a friend of mine) is leading the charge to turn positive fandom into an industry with the books she's edited, and the others are all known for being the sort of writers who are as vivid in person as they are on the page.

But you don't have to take my word for it. The SF Squeecast officially debuts today. Check it out for yourself. Isn't it about time to remember that you like this genre you love?

June 29, 2011

Where to Find Me This Weekend

It's going to be a long, busy weekend, thanks to the Skepchicks and CONvergence. In addition to getting to see all sorts of wonderful people who are too far away most of the year, I have a few specific commitments this weekend.

Tomorrow, I will be at the grassroots activism workshop run by Maria Walters (Masala Skeptic) and Desiree Schell. Once the weekend is over and I have a chance to (start to) recover, I hope to write this up for those who are unable to attend.

Are you wondering about ways to get more involved in skeptical activism? Wondering if you can actually make a difference but not sure exactly how?

I’m really proud to announce that Skepchick is offering a Grassroots Skepticism Workshop at SkepchickCon this year. Desiree Schell and I will be hosting the workshop and helping you navigate the best practices and pitfalls of activism.

If you are attending the convention, Saturday night at 10 p.m. is the Science-Based Sex panel. While any of us on the panel could talk about the topic for the full hour, this is an excellent chance to bring your questions about human sexuality to a bunch of people who may argue over the answers but won't just guess. Come make us talk about what you want to know.

Type: Panel; Science & Technology
Venue: Atrium 7
About: What does science have to say about human sexuality? Do our current cultural assumptions about sex hold up to scientific scrutiny?
Speaker/Artist(s) Info: Rachel Maccabee, Bug Girl, Amanda Marcotte, Stephanie Zvan, Craig A. Finseth
Tags: Science & Technology, Skeptic

All too soon after that, on Sunday morning at 9 a.m., I will be on Atheists Talk interviewing Skepchickcon guest Amanda Marcotte.

Amanda Marcotte is a feminist, atheist blogger and columnist whose views are nuanced and thoughtful but rarely careful. She recently noted that for all her work on feminism, her posts on atheism earn her the most negative attention. Tune in on Sunday, July 3, as she and Stephanie Zvan discuss the intersection between the two. Find out how feminism led Amanda to atheism and how it led to a conflict with the Catholic League over her work for John Edwards' presidential campaign. We'll also discuss the role of religion in the GOP's recently ramped-up War on Women. Expect a spirited discussion.

If you want to listen online, you'll need to use a Minnesota zip code, such as 55401. Call in with your questions to 952-946-6205 or email them to radio@mnatheists.com. A podcast version of the show should also be available Sunday afternoon if you can't listen live.

And then? Why, then I collapse.

June 28, 2011

Empathic Trauma

There is a post being passed around on Twitter titled. "I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD." If you have rape trauma, I can't say I'd recommend reading it, although it's fascinating and the journalist author was not raped. Mac McClelland's PTSD was triggered by the constant threat of rape and by the trauma of a rape victim she was working with.

The piece is exactly what its title says it is. It is getting mostly two responses that I've seen. The predominant one (and more male, come to think of it) is a silence that says the piece is complete in itself. The less common, and more female, is that something more should be said, although what isn't quite clear. Sometimes just "Thank you."

At first, my reaction was the predominant one. I felt the story should speak for itself, not because McClelland's response to her PTSD would have been the same as mine, but because it is a story that doesn't need to be second-guessed.

Then I got into a brief discussion about whether the trauma and the behavior that followed from it in the field was an indication that McClelland wasn't cut out for crisis reporting. My argument was that good, high-empathy reporting was often high-cost. Given that I discovered later that McClelland is an award-winning human rights journalist with a well-received book, I think I'm on the right track on this one.

There are a couple of ways to tell a story about dehumanizing violence. One is the "just the facts" approach. It's misnamed, because what it generally tells are the facts of the violent incident(s) in a way that obscures the facts of the people involved. The causes of violence and the way violence changes people's lives are facts too. Without them, the facts of the violent incident are presented out of context.

That's where empathy comes in. It makes the violence something that happens to real people, with real consequences. Frequently, it makes it an act committed by real people, many of whom are also victims.

It's a hell of a way to write a story when it's fiction. That anyone can do it well when the story is real is hard to imagine. Doing it well over and over again makes it inevitable that something will come along to bite you and almost inevitable that something will bite you damned hard.

You can't be fearless and do that job. If you can't empathize with someone else's fear, you can't make your reader empathize with it either. Even if you have the unlikely luxury of reporting from somewhere safe, feeling protected will separate you from your subjects. You have to find other ways to work that close to the bone.

The same goes for pain. To some extent, it must be yours, not theirs.

McClelland's story is remarkable not so much because she used an unorthodox means of dealing with her trauma as it is because of the glimpse it gives into the larger unorthodoxy of making those accommodations to living in pain and without safety. Her abandonment of ill-fitting "civilized" mores becomes obvious as it stops providing any benefits. Her controlled assertion of a lack of control, and a lack of need for control, would be ironic if it didn't work so well.

The title of the article promises sex, and the article delivers, but it's worth so much more as a portrait of a life and a vocation that most of us would never be able to adapt to. Go read the whole thing, if you can.

June 24, 2011


It's Greg Laden's birthday. As has become tradition, Greg, you're getting a story for your birthday. I hope you like it.


Claude pasted a smile on his face before driving into the village square and kept it there while he unhitched and watered the horses. It was still there as he opened the back of his wagon and mounted the steps that folded out from the back. It was a calm and serene smile, despite his worries, never wavering as he waited under the awning for the villagers to become curious enough to gather round.

It didn't take long. Quick glances gave way to pulled-aside curtains and whispered conferences. Children tried to pretend they weren't looking at him while pushing their friends to approach him. Smothered giggles surrounded him.

Finally, a large man with his left arm bound up in splints and linen marched up to the wagon with a purposeful stride. Claude wondered, as he always did, whether he was finally about to be caught, but his smile stayed warm and easy. "Can I help you, friend?"

"I figured I'd better find out what you're selling before someone dies of curiosity." The tall man's grin was broad and open.

Claude relaxed slightly. He raised his voice to carry. "Goodness, friend, if they're dying, bring them here immediately! My partner and I trade in cures."

"Ah. You're magickers then?"

Claude bowed. "We are at your service." He preferred to tell only the lies he had to.

The big man winced as he tried to lift his arm. "Do you have something that'll take care of this?"

"We do indeed. Adele!" Claude turned to find her already standing next to him in the back of the wagon.

Adele frowned sympathetically at the big man's arm. "Was it a bad break?"

"Was it bad?!" He twitched his arm and winced again. He went on more quietly. "It's bad enough I haven't been able to work for two weeks."

"Oh, dear." She clucked and shook her head.

The man leaned forward. "I don't mind telling you, miss. I fainted dead away when they tugged it to straighten it out."

"You poor thing." She looked dismayed. "Stay right here. We have just the thing."

Adele retreated into the shadows of the wagon, and the man turned to Claude. "Good to meet you, by the way. I'm Thierry, the carpenter." He held out his good hand. "It's good you came along. Not being able to work sure gets to a man."

Claude shook it. "I'm Claude, and my partner is Miss Adele. It's a pleasure to be able to help, Master Thierry."

Adele returned quickly, holding out a clay bottle stoppered with a plug of wax. "This is what you want." She handed it to him. "Rub some over the break every evening, then wrap it again in a clean cloth. It may itch, but try not to scratch it."

Thierry turned the bottle in his hand. "How long will it take before I can work again?"

Adele sighed. "It'll be another five or six days, I'm afraid, and the arm will be weak for a bit even then."

"Another week beats another month or more, Miss Adele." Thierry set the bottle on the floor of the wagon and pulled out his purse. "How much?"

"It'll be three pence." Real magickers' potions would be worth about twice that price.

Thierry's eyebrows went up. "I don't mean to argue with a bargain, but are you sure?"

Claude's smile got wider. "We can't all be rich men, Master Thierry."

"You'll soon be a richer man than when you started." He handed Adele three pennies and picked up his bottle. "I'll go let the folks know you're okay." He marched off as purposefully as he'd arrived.

Claude winked at Adele. The soft sell had worked again.

The children gathered first, wide eyed at meeting magickers. Claude practiced a little slight of hand for their amusement.

Then came the adults, a couple at first and more as folks saw their neighbors gather. Claude moved down from the steps then, out from under the awning and out of earshot of the wagon. People were willing to tell Adele almost anything, even things they didn't want their neighbors to hear. Claude enjoyed himself, keeping the crowd happy as they waited, telling blatantly modest stories about things he'd never done. He sent Adele another customer whenever she was ready.

As Claude watched Adele work, he was reminded how lucky he was to have found her. She'd started out timid. Customers standing right next to her used to ask her to speak up. She still couldn't work a crowd the way he did, but she'd gotten much better. She had a knack of looking people in the eye and, to all appearances, really listening to what they said. She held hands and patted shoulders. He'd even seen tears in her eyes on occasion. No one could have played her part better.

"Well, that's everyone from the village. I sent some of the kids to run out to the farms, so I hope you're planning on staying for a bit."

Claude turned to see Thierry. He pumped the man's hand as though it had been a year since he'd seen his dear friend last. "We're hoping to stay through the night, if no one minds. We'll stay in the wagon."

"In the wagon? There's no need." Thierry pointed across the square toward a handsome, two-story stone building with a thatched roof. "We've got a perfectly good public house, and you don't need to be a rich man to stay there."

Claude's smile, which had never left his face, deepened. "I'm sure it's lovely, and we'll stop in for dinner, but there are some..." He dropped his voice. "...things that are better not left alone overnight."

"I see." Thierry shot a nervous glance at the wagon, as did several other villagers. Claude hadn't caught anyone snooping in the wagon since he'd started using that line.

Thierry rubbed the palm of his good hand on his thigh and looked around. "So, uh, where are you heading off to tomorrow?"

"We've been mostly heading east. What's the next village in that direction?"

"It's Elder's Ferry, but it's not a village. It's a good-sized town."

Someone else said, "Hope you have enough medicine. Probably be plenty of sick folk for you to cure."

Claude looked around him. "Well, you're a hearty, healthy lot. I don't think you'll clean us out."

Then he sent Adele another customer. He was as fully relaxed now as he ever got. Things couldn't have gone better. He let his eyes twinkle at the crowd as he mentally counted his take.


Claude woke himself two hours before dawn. He threw on his clothes in the dark and opened the half door that led from his bunk to the wagon's seat. Adele was sleeping on the floor, lying between the barrels of steeping "medicine" and the bags of dried berries and herbs they used for color and flavor. All they added was water and a little of the local hooch.

It wasn't easy hitching sleepy horses to a wagon in the dark, but Claude had years of practice. Soon he was on the seat and ready to move.

South. He'd had no intention of heading east, but the news that there was a town there had confirmed his plans. They didn't stop in large towns. Towns were big enough to hold garrisons. If and when his misdeeds caught up with him, he wanted a fighting chance to get away.

He shook the reins and clucked softly to the horses. There was barely enough starlight to show where the buildings were. They made a little noise crossing the square, but his experience said honest folk slept soundly this time of night.

Claude was just turning onto the southern road when he saw a tiny blur of motion cross in front of the wagon. The horses started. The rabbit or whatever it was had come from the right, and the wagon turned sharply back into the square. It picked up speed.

Claude braced his feet against the board and leaned back as hard as he could, pulling on the reins, but the horses were having none of it. They wanted to run.

He saw the fence in front of them just as the horses swerved to avoid it. The wagon didn't make the turn as sharply as the animals did. He threw his hands up to shield his face when he heard the fence splinter.

Then he wished he'd been holding onto something. The wagon tipped, one of the front wheels coming up off the ground. As it came back down, Claude heard an ominous crack.

He was riding lower than he should be, even considering he was now sitting on the floor between the footboard and the seat. He heard something dragging, and the horses slowed. They came to rest in the middle of the road leading east.

As soon as the wagon stopped, Claude climbed back on the seat and opened the door behind him. "Adele, are you okay?"

There was no response. Then he heard a tiny annoyed voice. "Wha time's it?"

"Never mind." Mornings weren't Adele's best time. "Go back to sleep."

He thought about climbing down, but it was too dark to see the damage. Instead, he waited for the villagers to arrive and tried to come up with a plausible explanation for leaving town so early. He looked at the road. At least they were pointed the right direction.


It was the axle, and that wasn't the worst of Claude's luck. Thierry, with his broken arm, was the only wainwright in the village, as well as its carpenter. The only good news was that the wagon had landed right outside Thierry's shop.

Some of the villagers thought it would be better to send to Elder's Ferry for help and hope that someone had an axle the right size or would be willing to travel to fix it. Others thought that was useless and the magickers ought to wait the few days it would take for Thierry's arm to heal.

Waiting was, of course, out of the question. Those few days would be long enough for everyone to realize the medicine they'd bought was worthless. Claude tried not to show the panic he felt. He held onto his friendly, unconcerned smile, but only just. He couldn't take any useful part in the discussion.

It was Adele who came up with the solution, once she'd had her morning tea. "Harvest hasn't started, right? Otherwise you wouldn't all be standing around like this."

Sheepish grins showed the truth of her statement. She turned to Thierry. "How long do you think it would take you to make us an axle using other people's hands?"

"You mean tell them what needs to be done?" Thierry's eyes brightened at the prospect of work. "Three, maybe four days--assuming you're not all complete oafs." He turned to his fellow villagers.

There were friendly protests, but four of the young men accepted his challenge. They and most of the rest of the village, who'd found the accident a perfect excuse for a holiday, followed Thierry to pick out a properly sized and seasoned log from his stores.

Claude turned to Adele. "Is there anyone who's expecting to be cured before the axle's done?"

She was looking under the wagon at the broken axle. "I don't think so."

He looked around nervously. "Unless you have a way to speed things up, you might want to be sure."

She stood up and faced him. "They like us here." She shrugged. "What's the worst that could happen?"

Claude stared at her, his mouth hanging open, as she casually reclaimed her tea mug from the wagon's seat and wandered across the square toward the public house. It wasn't bad enough he had to worry about them being hung, now Adele was going crazy on him. He hoped he wasn't going to have to find a new partner again.

His other partners in crime had been so...well, dishonest. Claire had been the first. She'd packed up and left with him when he'd passed through her town. She'd left him about a year later, but most of what she'd packed then wasn't hers. He was lucky he'd been in the wagon when she left.

He'd avoided romantic entanglements in choosing his next partner, deciding they affected his judgment. It hadn't helped much. Marc had turned him in to the mayor of a town they'd stopped in, probably hoping to take the wagon while Claude was occupied. Claude had just barely enough warning from the mayor's daughter to escape--leaving Marc to his fate.

He'd been leery of taking on another partner after that, but he couldn't really raise a crowd as effectively from inside the wagon. Adele had seemed so harmless, even if he got the odd impression from time to time that she looked down on him. She was perfect once she'd learned to speak up.

She'd made improvements to how they sold the medicine, too. Gone were the days when he just pulled the nearest bottle from the shelf, telling people it was a cure-all. Adele spent time in the wagon for each customer, and every one of them came away thinking she'd given them exactly what they needed.

She was the one who started telling people that the cures would take several days to work, an improvement Claude appreciated. It gave them a much better start before irate customers could come looking for them. Only now she was acting like she didn't care about angry crowds.

He wanted to chase after Adele to yell at her, but he couldn't do that here. He couldn't wring an answer out of her either. He clenched his fists in frustration and kicked one of the wagon's wheels.

Remembering Marc, Claude made himself a promise. No matter what trick she thought she was keeping in reserve, if Adele betrayed him, he'd make sure she went with him.


"Come on, boys, back to work!" Thierry frowned as he gestured with his left arm. He'd taken the splints off and had it resting in a sling, but he kept using it to talk.

Claude nodded at the arm. "Hurt much?"

Thierry looked down and grinned. "No, but it itches like you wouldn't believe. Your partner was right. Mostly I can stand it, but when it rubs against the sling..." He patted it gently with his other hand. "Well, it's all I can do to keep from taking off some skin."

"You don't want to do that, not when it's healing so nicely." Claude turned toward the young men back at work on the axle. He and Thierry were standing in the open doors to Thierry's airy and barnlike shop. "What are they working on now?"

Thierry started in on the details of how they were shaping the log to make Claude's axle, with lots of pauses to yell at the men as they worked. Claude smiled and nodded in the right places, but his attention was all for the arm.

He was awed and amused that Thierry had decided that the pain was itching, just because Adele had told him it would itch. Two days ago he couldn't even move it splinted. Some people were so desperate to believe they were getting better that they'd convince themselves of anything.

At the same time, he was terrified that Thierry would gesture his arm right into something solid. It should be splinted for weeks yet. If Thierry jostled it hard enough, he'd be likely to pass out from the "itch." Then where would Claude and Adele be? Not that he'd seen much of Adele in the last couple of days.

Claude noticed Thierry's voice trail off. He was staring somewhere over Claude's shoulder.

Claude turned around. Coming across the square were a woman and a girl of about seven. The girl, racing to keep up with the hurrying woman, was quite a sight in this tidy village.

Her curly straw-blond hair was pulling out of her braids and stuck out all over her head. The hem of her dress was torn and hanging down on one side. The dress had probably once been blue, but it was now the same light brown as her hands, feet and the big streak across one cheek. She was carrying a rag doll in worse shape than she was. Obviously a child who liked mud.

The woman, who Claude assumed was the girl's mother, was much neater. Her light brown hair was pulled back. Her dress and apron were clean and pressed, if obviously faded. Claude would have described her as pretty if she hadn't looked so worn and worried.

When the two of them reached the shop, the little girl flopped down on the ground. The woman was winded too.

"Oh, good." She sighed and relaxed very slightly. "You are still here. I...I need..." She blushed crimson and looked at the ground.

Thierry stepped forward. Claude thought he might be blushing too. It was going around. "Is there something I can help you with, Bernadette?"

Bernadette dropped a half curtsy to the blacksmith. "Thank you, but no. It's just..."

"Are you looking for medicine, Mistress Bernadette?"

She looked up at Claude and opened her mouth. Nothing came out. Claude hadn't thought it possible, but her blush deepened.

"My brother's sick." The little girl stood back up and patted her mother's arm. Words came out through her gasps. "Coughing real hard...Aunt Mae says his color's bad...says there'll be one less mouth soon."

Bernadette bit her lip and turned half away. "I can't pay." Her words were almost inaudible.

"The baby's sick? Bernadette, I can--"

She shook her head. "No, Thierry, I can't let you do that."

Claude hadn't heard her approach, but Adele was standing at his elbow. She held out a bottle. "You'll be wanting this."

Bernadette's hands were clenched in fists at her side. She was still turned away from them. "I can't pay."

Claude stared at the woman. What was she doing? "Mistress Bernadette, if your son's sick--"

"I can't pay."

"Here." The little girl held out her doll. "Mama says we don't take...anything we can't pay for."

"Sophie." Bernadette held one hand out toward her daughter.

"It's all right. You can have the medicine." Part of Claude wanted to confess the stuff was worthless, just to make them go away. The combination of need and rigid honesty was making him edgy.

The little girl shook her head, still holding out the doll.

"But I don't need your--"

"Claude, take the doll."

Claude looked at Adele. She looked serious.

"They won't take the medicine otherwise." When he didn't move, she turned to the girl and knelt down. "I've been looking for a good doll. What's her name?"


Adele shook the doll's hand. "Nice to meet you, Elise." She looked back at the girl. "Do you think we can trade?"

The girl nodded. She hugged Elise fiercely, rubbing her face against the doll's. It was hard to say who ended up the dirtier for it. Claude was pretty sure the doll was wetter than it had been.

Then the exchange was made and Adele stood up. "Mistress Bernadette, rub some of that on your son's chest when you get home, do it again morning and night. When he's breathing easier, give him small sips instead for a week."

Bernadette nodded, her eyes wet. "Thank you."

The three of them watched mother and daughter out of sight. Thierry cleared his throat. "Well, I should see how that axle's coming." He wandered away without waiting for a response.

Claude shook his head. "There's a story there."

"There are stories everywhere, if you stop to hear them." Adele was still looking after Bernadette and her daughter. She looked silly, hugging the ragged doll.

"What's yours?"

Adele tilted her head and looked at him through narrowed eyes. "What do you mean?"

Claude decided there were too many ears too close by. He jerked his head to indicate that she should follow him to the other side of the wagon. Once there, he put his head close to hers. "Do you think that was wise?"


"Taking the doll. Don't you think they'll have enough to hate us for when the baby dies?"

"But they wouldn't have taken the medicine if I didn't take the doll." She looked confused.

"It's not medicine." Claude spit the words out. "It won't help them."

Adele looked at him for a long moment, opened her mouth and closed it again. Then she shrugged. "It won't hurt."

"Adele!" Claude was shocked at her callousness. She was so good it was easy to forget she was a fraud.

She snorted. "Don't try to convince me that you're growing a conscience. You were doing this long before I came around." She stalked away.

Claude considered going after her, but she was right. What call did he have to talk to her like that? He turned opposite the direction she'd gone and started to walk. He didn't really want to be alone with his thoughts, but he didn't want to share them with anyone else either.


That night they held a dance in the square. Visitors seemed rare here, for all they were near a good-sized town. Or maybe it was just that they wanted to do something nice for the people who had helped them. Claude gritted his teeth at the thought. The morning was still bothering him.

Thierry was there. Claude talked to him for a while between dances. He saw him dancing with Adele once, a clumsy proceeding with his arm in a sling. Thierry kept watching over Adele's shoulder as they moved. Bernadette wasn't there.

All the young men and boys wanted to dance with Adele. She laughed and tried to refuse, but they wouldn't let her. She seemed to be avoiding Claude.

When he danced, Claude confined himself to old women and girls under ten. No sense in making more trouble here than they were already in. Mostly he sat to one side and smiled. It was harder than usual. He was worried about how much time they had. The axle was coming along well, but any delay could still mean disaster.

It was odd. The longer Claude thought about it, the less disaster meant arrest or a public thrashing. Truth be told, he'd be sorry to disappoint these people. He didn't want to see their faces when they discovered he was a fake.

Maybe he shouldn't find it strange. After all, he'd gotten into this business because he wasn't any good at anything but talking to people. He enjoyed his job, meeting people and being friendly. He enjoyed telling stories and watching kids' eyes get big when he talked to them. He enjoyed having people look up to him, even if he wasn't who they thought he was.

This was the first time he'd really had to face the fact that there was another part of his job. He knew he was a fraud, but he didn't spend much time thinking about what that meant to anyone else. He'd never stuck around long enough to have to connect what he did with people being hurt. But now he knew these people, and he'd likely to have to watch what happened when they found out about him.

Claude wasn't wearing his habitual smile when Thierry thumped him on the back and sat down next to him. "Not much of a dancer either, eh, magicker?"

Claude waved a hand vaguely. "It's not that."

"Oh, I understand." Thierry smiled conspiratorially. "These small town entertainments, well, it's nice to be neighborly, but you must be used to something more grand."

"No, it's not...." Claude didn't want Thierry to keep guessing about what was bothering him. He changed the subject to the first thing he could think of. "How's Mistress Bernadette's baby?"

He wanted to take back the words the moment they left his mouth. The last thing he needed to do was to draw attention to his failings.

To his surprise, Thierry smiled. If he blushed too, well, Claude was getting used to that. "He's doing real well. Sophie--that's the little girl--she said he's almost stopped coughing. Even Aunt Mae, old pessimist that she is, thinks he'll make it. I can't thank you enough."

"Don't think anything of it." Claude was trying to absorb the good news. He'd been expecting tragedy. He almost missed Thierry's next remark. "What did you say?"

"I said it was right nice of Miss Adele to clean up the doll and 'sell' it to me. Sophie loves that thing, and I'll find some way to get it back to her without bruising anyone's pride."

Claude murmured something noncommittal, but he was too perplexed to make conversation. Was Adele having an attack of conscience? It didn't seem possible after her behavior that morning. Maybe she was trying to ingratiate herself with the villagers, plotting to shift the blame onto him. Or maybe....

Claude hardly noticed when Thierry left him to his own thoughts.


If Claude was confused the night of the dance, he was flummoxed by the afternoon they left.

The blow he'd been waiting for had never come. On the contrary, people had been coming up to him for the last day and a half to thank him for his help. A few more folks came to buy medicine. When the time finally came for them to leave, most of the village crowded around him and Adele, shaking hands and pounding backs. There were tears on some faces.

This time, they left in full daylight, and Adele sat beside him on the seat. It took all he had not to ask her immediately what was happening. Then, finally, they were out of earshot of the villagers. He tried to sound calm. "This is hardly the sendoff I was expecting."

Adele hung off the edge of her seat, turned around to keep waving at the villagers. She chuckled. "Thought it would be something less ceremonious?"

"Less comfortable at least." Claude realized Adele couldn't avoid him anymore. "So what happened back there?"

Adele didn't answer, just kept waving until they were around the first bend in the road. Then she turned around and settled in with a sigh.

"I asked you what happened back there."

Adele tried to look blank. "What do you mean?"

"We were there plenty long enough for someone to realize that what we were selling wasn't medicine. But everyone seems to think it worked." He frowned. "We're heroes. That was a grand goodbye. I haven't paid for anything for two days, but we've got enough extra food in the wagon to last us more than a week. What happened?"

"They liked us?" Adele sounded hopeful.

"Adele, stop it!"

"I, uh, I need to get something from the wagon." She reached for the door.

Claude leaned back against it. "You weren't worried, so you know something about what was going on in the village. If you go into the wagon without telling me what that is, it'll be to get your stuff. Then I'll stop and let you off."

Adele's mouth squirmed as though it were trying to flee her face. She turned forward.


She held up her hand. "Please. A minute. I'm not used to talking about this."

He waited for almost a mile. Finally, she sighed. "It was magic."

"Magic?" Claude was stunned.

She nodded. "I used magic to turn the potion you mix up into medicine. Everybody thought the cures worked because they did."

"But I...but you...." Claude told himself to shut up. He took a deep breath. "How long?"

"Have I been doing this? Since the start."


She frowned at him. "Why what? Help people?"

"No." He thought about what he wanted most to know. "Why is a magicker like you staying with a fraud like me? Don't you have a council somewhere you should be sitting on?" He had a sudden suspicion. "What do the magickers want with me?"

"Nothing as far as I know." Adele grinned. "Why? What have you done to them?"

"Nothing as far as I know." Claude hoped it was true. "Then why stay?"

Adele turned away. "Because the magickers don't want anything to do with me either."

Claude had traveled with Adele for three years. He couldn't imagine her committing any crime bad enough that the council of magickers wouldn't want her. Not with their reputation. "Why not?"

"I'm not very good." There were tears in her voice.

Claude couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "For goodness sake, you just cured a whole village of what ailed them. How good do you have to be?"

Adele wiped her eyes before turning around. "I didn't do all of it. You helped."

"Me?" Claude stared at her. Then he closed his mouth and looked at his hands, holding the reins. They looked the same as they always had. He couldn't see any magic. "What did I do?"

Adele smiled the tiniest of smiles. "Magic requires two things. I have the skills. I know what needs to be done."

"Okay, I'll agree with that. What's the other part?"

"Belief." Adele sighed and looked like she was going to cry again. "That's the part I don't have."

"What do you mean?"

Adele looked at him. "People see you and hear you, and they believe in you. They want to. I...well, I'm not exactly inspiring." She gestured at herself. "I'm not much to look at. I can't carry on an interesting conversation. People just don't look at me and believe I can help them."

"But..." Claude stopped. He realized he was on the brink of saying something that could lose him the best partner he'd had. He wanted to think about what he was doing first.

Then he looked at Adele, twisting her skirt in her hands. She'd spent the last three years curing people. She'd stayed with a fraud so she could keep curing them. What had he done in that time?

There wasn't anything to think about. "People believe in you."

Adele stared at her hands. "You don't have to be nice. I'm used to it." Her expression said she lied.

He whooped with laughter. "Since when do you think I'm nice?"

She looked up with wide eyes. "You're serious."

"I'm serious." He sighed. "I've been admiring your tricks, your way with people, for years. You have a skill I've never had."

She frowned her question.

"Sincerity." He shook his head. "You look at people, listen to them, and they can tell you care. They know--and I should have known, if I was paying any attention--that you're there to help them. When you tell them what they need to take to get cured and how they need to take it, they believe in you. They believe in it."

Adele looked stunned. Claude gave her some time to think.

He thought about the last three years. Nothing he'd done in that time had been what he thought it was. There were places he could go back to, people he could talk to again. They wouldn't be looking to arrest him. They'd think he'd helped.

For that matter, he had helped them--with Adele's assistance. From what she'd said, he'd supplied half of what they'd needed to make them better. Even if he hadn't meant to at the time, it was nice to know the one thing he was good at had turned out to be good for something after all.

The sun had almost reached the horizon when Adele stirred next to him and spoke.

"There's one more thing I should tell you."

Claude braced himself. "What?"

He hoped Adele would stay. If she decided she didn't need him anymore--and he wouldn't blame her--he'd have to go back to being a fraud. Now that there was another option, he desperately wanted to be able to grab it.

"I wasn't completely honest with you." She rubbed her eyes and looked uncomfortable. "I was afraid that if I told you everything, you wouldn't need me anymore."

Claude didn't understand. "What do you mean?"

"The magickers thought I was a novelty. It's pretty rare for someone to have only half the talents needed to create magic. That's how I got so much training before they made me leave. They were sure I'd develop the rest."

When it sunk in, Claude stopped the horses and turned to face Adele. "You mean..." He couldn't say it.

She nodded, a little bit of humor peeking out from behind her nervousness. "If you can raise that much belief, you can probably learn to shape it."

"I, uh...oh." He blinked.

Adele grinned, definitely not the timid person he'd met three years before. "I could try to teach you, if you like."

Claude tried to think about it, but he couldn't give the idea the attention it deserved. On top of everything else, it was just too much. "Could you do me a favor?"

Adele scrunched her eyebrows together. "What?"

"I'm having enough trouble getting used to being legitimate." He shook the reins to start the horses going again. "Ask me again in about a month."

She looked at the wagon and horses then, finally, at him. "I will."

He believed her.
Continue reading...

June 21, 2011

I Do This Why?

I'll let you in on a little secret: No one reads this blog.

Well, that's not quite true. The people who read this blog aren't anything like "no one." There just aren't very many of them.

To put this in perspective, last Thursday night I wrote a blog post regarding a ridiculous letter published in Times Higher Education in support of Satoshi Kanazawa, the "researcher" who claimed that his analysis showed that black women were "objectively" less attractive than women of other ethnic backgrounds. The letter was causing an angry buzz in my Twitter feed, and I put that anger into words.

The numbers looked good to start with. A dozen people or so have shared it on Twitter, a couple of them quite influential. It's being passed around on Facebook a little. It was Tumbled and reblogged a few times. Go, me.

I know better than that, though. I passed the post on to the JAYFK as well, to give it its best chance of finding an audience. After all, the defense of Kanazawa isn't just ridiculous; it's damaging and outrageously hypocritical. So I also pushed the post more than usual, playing up the controversy aspect by retweeting John Rennie's "Possible to draw & quarter people while hoisting on own petards? @szvan does it to Kanazawa's defenders. http://t.co/oxWIjoQ" and Chris Clarke's "Note to self: stay on @szvan's good side. http://t.co/EEECI3q #kanazawa"

Jason at Lousy Canuck, very much not a "no one," also thinks the topic is important. He wrote a post yesterday reporting on my post and promoting it. Half a dozen people retweeted his post, mostly the same people who had promoted mine, including me.

Now, this is how my blog traffic works: In two hours, Jason's post--meant to get people to read mine--passed it in total traffic, at least on this blog. For the record, that's less time than it took to put my post together. Half a dozen people clicked through from his post to mine. One person retweeted my post again.

So much for timely and topical. So much for content is king. So much for networking and self-promotion. So...yeah.

Why do I do this again?

June 20, 2011

By Thy Authority

Oh, look. Another preacher person is in trouble for using the authority of his position to get him some.

The woman told police that her spiritual adviser recommended she find a regular confessor in the Catholic Church so she chose Wenthe, whom she had met while attending a Catholic initiation class. She said Wenthe heard her confession at least four times, while he told police he heard her confession only one time and it was before their sexual relationship began.

According to the criminal complaint, the woman said she had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from an eating disorder. The first sexual encounter took place at Wenthe's rectory apartment after the woman had met with her counselor.

"I remember pleading with him that we should stop," the woman wrote in a 2006 letter to an archdiocese official. "He made me feel like I had done this to him and that I was obligated to finish the job."

The woman told police the sexual encounters happened about every two weeks, sometimes after mass in Wenthe's apartment or in the sacristy where priests change into their ceremonial garments. She eventually left the state to enter treatment for her eating disorder and the sexual encounters ended in February 2005.

This time, however, the priest is saying he shouldn't be in trouble for what he did.

Paul Engh, Wenthe's attorney, filed a motion arguing that the state law prohibiting a clergy member from having sex with a person who is seeking or receiving "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private" is unconstitutional. In court records, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office said the law is constitutional and has been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

District Judge Margaret Marrinan will hear arguments from both sides Monday.

"Any minister who has sex with anybody may be in trouble under this statute," Engh said last week. "It's an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior."

Right. Because priests and ministers can't possibly, say, sign up for OKCupid and take their chances like anyone else. Their situation is so very, very special that they can only have sex with the vulnerable people who come to them for help and believe they have an inside line on what God wants. They are such special snowflakes that they can't abide by the same laws every other kind of counselor or other authority is bound by. Not them.

And the answer to the problem apparently isn't to give up any of that authority either. The church is engaging in similar nail biting.

Andrew Eisenzimmer, chancellor for civil affairs with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the archdiocese has not taken a position on the constitutionality of the law. He said these types of cases are complex because of the restrictions on testimony about a particular religion's practices or beliefs.

"You're asking the jury to decide when a Catholic priest is actually counseling a follower," Eisenzimmer said.

Not really. Though the law specifies that sex is prohibited when someone seeks "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private," what the state is asking the jury to do is to determine when there is a degree of authority in a relationship that prevents a reasonable certainty of free consent.

It's a high standard, yes. However, it's the same standard that anyone else who offers care in situations that create an imbalance of power agrees to abide by. Do they always stick to this agreement? No, but they don't then challenge the legality of the agreement based on the idea that maybe they didn't have that much power. Power and authority are broadly construed for other "helping" professions. None of them seems to have this same problem with thinking this will keep them from ever having sex. They simply keep their sex and professional lives separate. Who would think it would be harder for those who claim to be experts in the problem of temptation?

It's also amusing to see Wenthe's attorney's concern for "an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior." His client has nominally submitted to a much-tighter regulation of his own behavior and participates in the church's attempt to regulate everyone else's.

That Wenthe is fighting the state and not the church suggests that his problem isn't with regulating sexual behavior in general, but only with anyone who tries to regulate his. After all, the church only made him undergo treatment when they were informed of the problem in 2006. They left him all the authority that allowed him to do this in the first place.

June 18, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Obedience

Breanna Yovanoff writes grim and creepy young adult fantasy with elements of uncertain hope. In "Obedience" she has written a notably grim and creepy zombie story with elements of uncertain hope. There are much worse patterns to find in someone's writing.

Grace crouched lower, sinking into her nanovest, bracing her shoulder against the radiator. She checked the cuffs of her jacket, tucked them deep into the tops of her gloves. Outside, pale hands seemed to float, palms flat against the windows. They were laughing, a storm of high-pitched giggles.

They smiled. No training in the world prepared you for that. They smiled as they slashed and bit, tearing flesh off their victims in chunks. They smiled as they ran, a merciless full-out sprint, headlong, ravenous. They smiled right before you leveled the barrel and squeezed the trigger. Sometimes, if the shot was high enough, the caliber small enough, even when they fell back—smoke rising from a neat round hole in the forehead—they were still smiling.

Jacobs said it was neurological, an involuntary tic. He talked about them a lot, his language precise, his hands sketching neural pathways. It had been his idea to come up here, strike for the research complex near Rosewood. They were close now, a couple miles off, but the slopes were crawling with smirkers and everything had started to seem wildly impossible.

A window broke somewhere and the house was suddenly awash with a new influx. They poured into the little common room. One was wearing a Christmas sweater, red, sprinkled intermittently with green trees, white reindeer.

Keep reading.

June 17, 2011

With Friends Like These

Times Higher Education has just posted a rather amusing defense of evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. If you managed to miss the poorly analyzed Psychology Today blog post he wrote that put him in a defensive position, I recommend you catch up here before reading the letter.

All set now? Good.

We believe the recent criticisms of Satoshi Kanazawa's work cannot be justified ("Damage limitation: evolutionary psychologists turn on controversial peer", 2 June). Contrary to the assertion that Kanazawa does poor work, he has published 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals in the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, biology and medicine. These are listed on his London School of Economics web page and many of them have been published in top high-impact journals.

I'll let someone from Retraction Watch weigh in on how well peer review guarantees that poor work is never published.

Kanazawa's publications are listed here. I note that whatever "top high-impact journals" Kanazawa has published in, he's also published in Intelligence, which still (unironically) prints papers treating IQ testing as a valid measure for cross-cultural intelligence comparisons. Someone for whom impact factor is a big deal will have to do the research on whether the letter writers are correct, but I would love to see the results.

Why? Because there are a number of fairly staid topics and treatments among Kanazawa's publications. It wouldn't be the first time I'd seen that kind of work used to put someone's name in the "right" places while the iffy political pieces went elsewhere. In fact, Pharyngula had a post up yesterday documenting that kind of behavior in a geologist. If anyone matches articles to impact factor, please let me know.

The critics assert that many of these papers are "bad science" and have been published only as a result of a faulty peer-review process. This cannot be accepted. The editors of journals send the papers submitted to them to reviewers with expertise in the fields in question and publish only those that are deemed to be sound. Thus, all of Kanazawa's papers have been judged as sound by competent reviewers. Others may disagree, and in the case of innovative papers of the kind Kanazawa writes, frequently do. Time eventually tells whether the authors or their detractors are right.

This is just silly. Bad science gets through peer review, even when one's peers don't have the same political bent you do. On the day this letter appeared, Times Higher Education also ran an article about a mathematics journal withdrawing a paper written by a proponent of intelligent design that claimed to disprove the second law of thermodynamics. The editor apologized for even considering it, but the article had passed peer review.

The critics complain that when Kanazawa has a paper rejected by one journal, he sends it to another and publishes it there. Who among the academy's members has not done that? Reviewers frequently misjudge a paper and editors accept their recommendations. The author then sends it elsewhere and it is accepted. If there were anything wrong with this practice, then, as the first online comment under "Damage limitation" puts it: "A few Nobel prizes will have to be returned."

The detractors assert that Kanazawa rarely responds to brickbats. On the contrary, we believe that while he sometimes does not respond immediately, he frequently deals with criticisms in his subsequent work.

Actually, the objection was not that Kanazawa submitted papers after they were rejected. The section in question:

The peer review process is not perfect and appears to have failed when dealing with Kanazawa's poor quality work. Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals, despite the detailed critiques of the papers given to Kanazawa by the reviewers and editors of the journals that rejected his papers.

Thus, not only is Kanazawa's work an example of poor science on theoretical and methodological grounds in our view, but we also believe it violates the central purpose of scientific discourse, because he rarely engages with his scientific critics. He rarely considers the criticisms of his work that have been published as well as those given to him during the peer review process: to our knowledge he has published counter-responses on only two occasions to critiques of his work (separate responses to two critiques of a paper published in 2001; and a response to one critique of a paper published in 2002). Since then, he has not published a full length response in the academic literature to any of the numerous critiques which have been published against his work, nor has he published corrections to the papers for which doubt has been cast on the conclusions.

There are legitimate discussions to be had on the role of peer-review feedback in shaping the final published product. However, having that discussion and recasting a complaint about Kanazawa's resistance to incorporating feedback are two very different things. Also, given what the criticism of Kanazawa actually was (that he doesn't interact with feedback prior to publication) it seems a little odd to note that he incorporates feedback into later work. If the criticism is important enough to be dealt with, wouldn't he produce stronger papers by dealing with it up front?

But back to the letter. There are a few short paragraphs providing information about two times Kanazawa later responded to criticism, followed by this closing:

Finally, we believe that the proper place to make criticisms of academic papers is in the journals in which they were published, not in letters to the press where they cannot be adequately answered.

This--this!--is what makes this letter so entertaining. Even forgetting that Kanazawa brought himself and his work into the general public eye by writing a blog post about his "findings," this is the richest vein of irony I've mined in some time. You see, while the idea that scientific ideas and their validity should be hashed out in journals is relatively common among scientists, it's pretty rare among the signatories to this letter.

With the exception of Lynn, who cowrote the book with Vanhanen, that's just one example per signatory for those who were easy to find in a very quick Google search. If there is one thing this group is not, that would be in favor of keeping science discussions contained in journals. The fact that they want everything contained and compartmentalized in this case makes a far stronger argument than anything in Kanazawa's CV that, at least in this field or subfield, there may be some serious problems with peer review.

But it was terribly sweet of them to write a letter and make it obvious.

June 16, 2011

The Coupling Rant

I love my fandom, and my fandom drives me insane.

By "my fandom," I mean the people who interact with science fiction and fantasy in a critical capacity with an eye to getting things right. They want the science to not be silly (or at least not any sillier than it has to be for the purposes of the story). They want magic systems to make sense, granted the fact of magic in the first place. They want events to unfold in ways that flow from the world and the characters.

More importantly, what sets apart "my fandom" is that they want the people to be right. They want populations to reflect the diversity of a realistic world. They want characters to reflect the personalities and experiences of the people who read science fiction and fantasy--and those who would read if they could find themselves in the stories.

All that is an excellent thing. It does, however, come with its own set of problems and biases. The biggest problem I tend to find in a group that values getting things right is a tendency to confuse things they don't like with things that are wrong, and by wrong I don't just mean factually inaccurate.

(Note: One of these days I'll stick my hand in the blender that is the tendency of my fandom to apply the simplistic label of "fail" to large-scale, multiple-issue, multiple-party disagreements. Today isn't that day, mostly because the topic deserves careful, nuanced analysis and I'm grumpy.)

The most recent thing driving me insane has to do with Doctor Who. More specifically, it has to do with people's reactions to Steven Moffat taking over showrunning from Russell T. Davies. Even more specifically, it has to do with the fact that the relationship between Amy and Rory doesn't appeal to a lot of people.

Frankly, it doesn't entirely appeal to me either. As pretty as Rory is, I really like being in a grown-up relationship. I don't want to be that young and unsure of what I want and what I'm being offered. I don't want to treat anyone the way Amy does or the way Rory does or even the way the Doctor does. Not. for. me.

On the other hand, you're never going to hear me say, "Have you ever seen Coupling? The problem is that Steven Moffat can't write a strong woman who isn't a bitch." I don't remember who said it in that version, but the sentiment is fairly common.

Here's the thing about Coupling. It was developed when Friends became a big international hit. The biggest difference, aside from the size of the apartments involved and the presence of a pub instead of a coffee shop, is that the characters in Friends were dealing with their various lives at the same time they were hooking up and breaking up with each other: jobs, families, old school friends, etc. and on. Any gender and sexual politics happened in the course of one grand soap opera. Mostly, they didn't happen.

Coupling, as the name signifies, was about sex. It was also about gender roles in relationships. As in Friends, there were three men and three women, but here they came in paired types. Sally and Patrick were the shallow, looks-obsessed traditionalists who ran their relationships by the rules. When they dated each other, some of those rules meshed and some clashed. Jane and Jeff were bound by no rules. They were impulsive, and you never knew what would come out of their mouths.

Then there were Susan and Steve, the proxies for the audience. Each was horrified by how Sally and Patrick treated their partners. Each was a little envious of Jane and Jeff in their freedoms, but neither wanted to deal with the consequences Jane and Jeff faced. They were pretty well perfect for each other, but they still had to figure out how to make things work. They started with nudity, ended with birth, and ran a lot of odd places in the middle.

Coupling was hilarious because of this awkwardness, this tension between the old rules that mostly tell people they can't do what they want with respect to sex and the new rules that require us to negotiate everything without any training in how it's done. Every new freedom came with the embarrassing need to, ahem, you know, talk about it. Every new opportunity came with a need to have an opinion, even if everyone, all your life, has been telling you what the one right opinion is...and it isn't yours.

Susan got cranky about this sometimes. Exasperated. Yep. So did Steve. One of the funniest speeches in the show involves him getting fed up enough to not care about the consequences of explaining the appeal of lesbian porn. It is every bit as bitchy as anything any of the women in the show say to each other in the entire run.

But Susan is the bitch and Moffat can't write any better. Because someone doesn't like what being strong without being perfect in the middle of these pressures looks like. Because her journey and Steve's are uncomfortable to see, particularly if we've managed our own with just a little bit more grace. Or maybe because we haven't. I don't know.

I do know that wanting things to be right is a very good thing, but I'm never going to understand the kind of thinking that takes my opinions and preferences and decides that anything that doesn't match them is wrong.

June 15, 2011

Something Hard and Something Easy

If you haven't already seen half a dozen links from your friends to Gerty-Z's "I gay wrote this post," first, ask your friends why they're letting you down. Then read it.

What I wanted to write about today is what it is like to be out as a new TT academic in the bio-sciences. EcoPhysioMichelle over at C6-H12-O6 has a post up about feeling invisible as a non-heterosexual academic. As she points out, it can be relatively easy to not mention the fact that you are LGBT. I have made it a point in my life to NOT be invisible. In other words, I am fully out. Everyone in my department knows that I am gay: colleagues, administrators, the janitor. All of the students know. My wife comes with me to departmental events and we have the lab peeps over for the occasional BBQ. If you are straight, you may be thinking "well, everyone knows that I am straight". No big deal, right. Wrong.

Why is it hard to be out? Not for the reasons you probably think. However, I think we've had enough straight people speaking for lesbians for a while. Find out from Gerty herself.

Now for something a bit easier. Let me start by noting that I have never in my working life received a raise that was only cost of living. Some of the raises I've received, percentage-wise, have made people's jaws drop.

Awesome, right? Go, me!

Well, that's one way to look at it. It's probably not the best way, though, particularly given that I haven't asked for raises that big. What it really means is that I've been underpaid. When someone gives you a raise to "bring you up to where you should be," that means you started way too low and stayed there until someone noticed. It means I've missed out on significant earning power over my career and only avoided missing out on more by not staying anywhere I didn't have a really good boss.

It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way. And my friend Lynne has a post up about three sentences that will go a long way to keep it from happening to you when you start a job.

These are the three most important sentences that I learned in library school:

"I'm really excited about this opportunity. However, the offer is a little below my range. Can we do any better, say [name a number $5000 more than offer on table?]"

These sentences are a simpler version of the strategy that worked for my husband when he recently changed jobs. They worked for Lynne, and she lays out the math on what they can mean for someone else, either as earning power or in other perqs that can make your job or your life more pleasant and successful. Go read, absorb, and put them into action the next time you've already convinced someone you're the best person for the job.

June 14, 2011

Dreaming for Women

On Saturday, my niece graduated from high school. Her school is very young, and it's meant to be small. Her graduating class was 13 people. Twelve of those people were women.

They heard a commencement address on the subject of dreams. The speaker quoted Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, spoke of the failures Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison met on their way to success, and praised the work of Mozart and Michael Jordan in mastering their crafts.

It mentioned not one woman. So I will.

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off. --Gloria Steinem

The fact of the matter is, ladies, you deserved better. You deserved a speech that recognized you have your own unique challenges to face in finding and following your dreams, and you deserved a speech that didn't make you feel you were the first of your gender to chart this path. You aren't. Many women have come before you and accomplished great things. You've just learned that, like them, your biggest challenge may be in being recognized for what you manage to do.

Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. --Virginia Woolf

You were given some advice to put aside distractions and listen to your dreams to find out what they really are. This is excellent advice. However, the toughest distractions aren't the sort of thing that will go away when you turn off the TV. Much harder to set aside are the voices of all those people around you who think they know what you want better than you can. They mean well, some of them, but they don't know you as well as you do. And you are the person your dreams must satisfy.

If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. --Gail Sheehy

Also, it is hard for many of the people who love you to understand that you must grow up and find your own way. That doesn't mean you have to leave them behind, but it does mean they can't protect you anymore. The world can be a dangerous place in which to be a woman, and there are those who want to make it a more dangerous place for those women who dare to strive and challenge and be independent.

You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try. --Beverly Sills

The problem with this is that not striving to follow your dreams doesn't make the world a significantly safer place. There are costs to living a small, frustrated life as well. Stress is bad for you in large doses, but the stresses of challenging yourself and your world are often balanced by the joys those challenges bring, both in themselves and in meeting them successfully.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. --Anais Nin

Meet people. You don't have to like them all, and they don't have to like you, but you'll never find the people who fill the odd gaps in your heart if you don't find odd people. You won't find the people who share your "odd" interests. And you won't find the people whom you can help like no one else can.

Visit places that are unlike the places you grew up. They're not as far away as you might think. Go as a visitor instead of as a tourist. Learn how and why things you don't do are done, even if you have to ask stupid questions. You don't have to move in, but every possibility you're exposed to is food for your dreams.

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. --Alice Walker

Following your dreams will get you into trouble. One sort or another, you can't avoid it. When this happens, particularly when it happens simply because you are a woman pursuing your own dreams instead of someone else's idea of what you should be doing, you have resources. There are laws and rules on your side. You have rights. You will have to fight to get them, but there are also people on your side who will fight for you and with you. Accept their help. It doesn't mean that you're weak; it means that these people understand that we are stronger together.

Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use. --Ruth Gordon

Following your dreams will wear you down. It will be tiring. Sometimes it will hurt. You will have times you just don't feel you have the strength to keep going. You have more than you know. Never quit while you're tired. Cry, swear, throw things. Rest, because you've already done more than you or most of the people around you are giving you credit for, but don't quit. Once you've got your strength back, then you can decide whether it's time for a new dream, but you'll be amazed how often all you needed was the rest to make you strong again.

Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore. --Lady Gaga

Despite the makeup of your graduating class, I can promise you that men are not rare in the rest of the world, if it's even a man you're looking for. The good ones are worth stopping for and appreciating at least briefly, but there are more of them than you've been led to believe. Similarly, there is more love out there than you can imagine now. Not all of it comes in romantic pairings, either. If you make time in your dreams for people, and set aside the people who exist only to fill your time and get in the way of your dreams, you don't ever have to worry about being alone. Don't listen to the people who tell you you can't have it all.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. --Harriet Tubman

Now, go. Dream.

June 13, 2011

The Good Bad Girl

I've been watching the DC comics reboot commentary without much personal stake. It bothers me that the universe is losing Oracle in a redesign touted as promoting diversity, but at a slight remove. I'm not part of the audience for these comics. Watching a bunch of white guys of a certain age decide that they knew how to increase their appeal to everyone else was painful but predictable.

Then, while following a link from Bug Girl, I saw this.

The wonderful thing about Harley’s original design is that it’s inviting, welcoming even. If you saw her on the street, you wouldn’t expect her to suddenly draw out a gun and steal all your money. The general public would be won over with her megawatt grin until her mallet knocked them unconscious. If you put the new Harley in a city, people would start asking if Marilyn Manson was shooting a new music video, pedestrians would avoid her all together and the police would be called. She’s more intimidating and easily more suspicious than the original.

Uh-uh. You don't mess with my Harley Quinn.

Yes, my Harley Quinn, for two reasons: No comic book character stays static, and Harley's been part of several reimaginings. At least one has had a very different Harley origin story, which includes a female Joker. A few show us an older, grown up Harley. I'm not talking about those.

More importantly, Harley is mine because she's a beloved part of my id. You see, Harley is such a pretty little anti-feminist's nightmare.

No, really. What is Harley before she meets the Joker? We know what kind of practice and injury and self-denial goes into being a gymnast. More work and self-denial puts her in a profession that is all about helping others, thanklessly. And all of it done coming out of a family where the men are allowed to fail but Harley is supposed to remain a "good girl."

Then comes the Joker. Our little Harley falls in love, exactly as she's been told good girls do. And there is hell to pay.

Harley adopts Mr. J's ends as her own--and gets in his way helping him, when she isn't showing him up. After all, she doesn't have to be crazy to do what she does. It all makes sense in her world. She idolizes Mr. J, creating a fictionalized, idealized Joker in her own mind that he can never live up to. She maddeningly maintains her cheer when things are going wrong for him. She is so perfectly devoted to him that he has to kill her to get rid of her--or try, at any rate, since she insists on staying alive.

For all her mayhem, Harley remains the quintessential good girl, and I love that this only makes her all the more terrifying and formidable. Harley is the bit of me that looks out from under her eyelashes and says, "Yes, I can be exactly what you want me to be. I can follow those rules and present the front that you require. You're going to hate it."

That isn't this Harley. I don't know what this Harley is. Maybe she'll give us something else we need in the place of that chaotic, amoral creature we're told we should aspire to be. But if we lose our good girl in the process of remaking the bad, then we've lost too much.

June 11, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Six Months, Three Days

I've known Charlie Jane Anders tangentially for years through WisCon. I cheered when she co-edited She's Such a Geek. I've enjoyed her nonfiction writing on io9, particularly the occasional movie review. Somehow, I've missed her fiction until this week. I've got to fix that.

This story is, amid whatever else Charlie Jane intended it to be, a meditation on making our own way in a world of other people's expectations. More than that I will not say. You'll just need to read it.

The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.

Judy is nervous but excited, keeps looking at things she’s spotted out of the corner of her eye. She’s wearing a floral Laura Ashley style dress with an Ankh necklace and her legs are rambunctious, her calves moving under the table. It’s distracting because Doug knows that in two and a half weeks, those cucumber-smooth ankles will be hooked on his shoulders, and that curly reddish-brown hair will spill everywhere onto her lemon-floral pillows; this image of their future coitus has been in Doug’s head for years, with varying degrees of clarity, and now it’s almost here. The knowledge makes Doug almost giggle at the wrong moment, but then it hits him: she’s seen this future too — or she may have, anyway.

Doug has his sandy hair cut in a neat fringe that was almost fashionable a couple years ago. You might think he cuts his own hair, but Judy knows he doesn’t, because he’ll tell her otherwise in a few weeks. He’s much, much better looking than she thought he would be, and this comes as a huge relief. He has rude, pouty lips and an upper lip that darkens no matter how often he shaves it, with Elvis Costello glasses. And he’s almost a foot taller than her, six foot four. Now that Judy’s seen Doug for real, she’s re-imagining all the conversations they might be having in the coming weeks and months, all of the drama and all of the sweetness. The fact that Judy can be attracted to him, knowing everything that could lay ahead, consoles her tremendously.

Keep reading.

June 09, 2011

The Judgment of Rep. Weiner

My former roommate, who was also my maid of honor and has consumed more of my turkey soup than anyone but my husband, left a comment on my prior post on the reaction to Weiner's "sex scandal" that I think is worth addressing at length (in no small part because she asks me to, and I hate to say no to Shari). So here is the meat of her comment and my reactions.

But there's a few things Not connected (at least, in my own head yet) to prudery that Still make me want him to step down.

One thing worth noting here is the prudery under discussion isn't necessarily the prudery of an individual. One effect of the overall background prudery in effect has been to narrow the options and ideas that even come to mind when we think about these issues.

Poor impulse control.

We don't actually know this. Evidence of a mistake is not always evidence of poor planning. He may have thought this through, decided it made sense for his situation, and still bungled the execution.

Utter lack of concern (or was it freaking AWARENESS of concern) for what his family would go through 'if he was caught'.

Again, we don't know this. People who take on "alternative" sexual and relationship arrangements are well aware that there is risk involved. That's why there's a closet. That's why these things are conducted in private. But that doesn't mean that the risk hasn't been weighed and found to be more than balanced by the ability to be true to one's own desires. Let's face it. If that ability were a trivial thing, human history would be hugely different.

Whether right or wrong - and if prudery is being used as a cultural straightjacket, we can all probably assume Wrong! - he knows that politicians are under intense scrutiny, as they represent other people.

Actually, this is new. I recommend reading Marcotte's piece on Alternet on this for some recent historical perspective. If you need more examples, consider that Norm Coleman's mistress was considered non-news for both his Senate campaigns (as, sadly, was his reputation for sexual assault). FDR, JFK, and LBJ's affairs (to stick to the monogrammed presidents) are matters of history, known but irrelevant during their tenures. You can say times were different then, but that doesn't explain why Bush the Elder's mistress was considered only a matter of gossip. To go back further, Cleveland's possible illegitimate child (actual paternity unknown) was acknowledged in his run for the presidency but not a deciding factor.

Private matters used to be considered private unless they were evidence of hypocrisy and often even then. This is new.

And they are held to high standards. Or, at least, I hold them to high standards - especially of judgement.

Well, except we don't hold our politicians to high standards. If we did, we'd get serious about the Citizens United ruling so that corporations have a tougher time buying them. We'd do something so people weren't always talking about voting for the lesser of two evils. We'd hold them accountable for their campaign promises instead of expecting them to be broken.

Holding politicians to high standards only for private decisions that have no impact on our lives is a clear signal of prudery to me. And while any individual may not fit that description, the fact that a consensual dick pic is news and Justice Thomas's hidden conflicts of interest aren't stinks of that background prudery.

I'm guessing he thought he could manage any fallout if this ever became public. We see how well That turned out.

Given the historical treatment of extramarital sex in politicians, I'm not sure that was a bad assumption going in. It doesn't seem to have taken him very long, though, to figure out that nothing but the full truth was going to suffice in this situation.

That amazing level of arrogance in his initial denials screams of his desire for celebrity, without responsibility.

I'm all for lying my face off if someone decides that my private business is their public business. Well, actually, I'm not, but that's mostly because I'm a skewer-with-detailed-truth kind of gal. Still, I completely support it in others. Serving one's country is not the same thing as giving the American population a free pass into one's bedroom (or wherever else one wants to flirt or fuck). It's a pity it didn't work.

And that kind of judgement in his personal life makes me question his judgement on national issues.

Here Weiner has a record. Twelve years of national record, six years in New York before that. And that record is excellent, particularly on the topics of women's health (sexual and otherwise) and sexual freedoms. I have no reason to doubt his record because he screwed up using Twitter.

The point at which compulsive behaviour threatens your job - and this qualifies, I think, you need to put it in check.

What's compulsive? Why compulsive? The fact that you and most of the people you know would need something as strong as a compulsion to behave that way means that this is behavior you find wrong for you. That's fine, but it's not a universal. Someone who doesn't consider this behavior immoral or otherwise wrong doesn't need to be compulsive to do something natural to them.

Would I be as disgusted if this guy weren't married? Not quite, because the whole point of marriage is to forsake all others (not discussing polygamy here.), and if you want to do gross tweets, don't friggin' get married because your spouse will be understandably pissed. Poor judgement.

Actually, the purpose of marriage is to build a life together and to have that life recognized by your friends, family, and society. Beyond that, it varies. I know a number of people in very strong marriages (some of the strongest I know, but not all, so no use guessing) who never promised monogamy or who decided that monogamy was either not necessary or actively harmful to their marriages.

And really, we don't ever forsake all others. Marriages happen within a community. We have friends who meet some of our emotional needs so our partners don't carry them all. We have people around us who share values and interests that our partners don't. We have flirtations, the vast majority of them without any intent to go beyond flirting. We maintain lots of degrees of intimacy with people other than our partners.

Some people simply find that allowing sexual and romantic relationships with people other than their partners is, for them, a reasonable step in the same direction. They're nothing like pissed. The people who don't aren't necessarily prudes, but deciding that all marriages have to be composed of the same boundaries and arrangements that yours are is a form of prudery.

Also, I've seen the picture that was tweeted. It's not gross. It doesn't make me want to jump the guy or anything, but I can kind of understand why he wanted someone else to see it.

Single people sexting (especially with that last name)are opening themselves up to blackmail - poor judgement if they are in the public eye.

There is only a risk of blackmail if there is secrecy. There is more likely to be secrecy in an atmosphere of prudery. If you're willing to do what Weiner did, to confess when the press decides this is the most pressing political issue of the day, you can't be blackmailed.

So, no. While I'm deeply concerned at the judgment of the press in this situation, Weiner's judgment, particularly as a legislator, bothers me not one bit.

June 08, 2011

Fright N--Ooh, Yum

So, there's a new trailer out for the remake of Fright Night. It is being passed around because it stars David Tennant's bare chest.

The passing around prompted Dana to ask, "Does retweeting that David Tennant thing make us sexist pigs?"

Because I live to answer these questions and make these distinctions between sex and sexism, I answered, "As long as we don't feel entitled to it, I think we're okay in appreciating it."

So please, enjoy. Things like this should not be wasted.

June 07, 2011

Prudes and Prisons

After a night without internet, I finally got to catch up on the Weiner "scandal" this morning. All the reaction I had time before work was summed up in three Tweets:
  • Yeah, I'm a bit ticked at Weiner. Mostly for labeling his premarital sexting as "inappropriate."

  • As for his postmarital sexting? Only his wife can say. And I'm certainly not going to put her on the spot to find out.

  • In other news, has Ginny issued a public apology to Clarence yet for her inappropriate lobbying?
I meant to write a whole blog post about the subject tonight, but Amanda Marcotte has already written it.

Against prudery

I don't want to keep hammering at this, but here's a link to my Alternet piece on why I'm so concerned about this whole Anthony Weiner scandal. I won't revisit it at length here; please read the article. My biggest problem is that the pretense of public interest was completely abandoned, and this was just a matter of the "ick factor". Now that this door is open, and simply making people uncomfortable is considered reason enough to condemn someone and demand their resignation, I'm really worried. My gut feeling on this is that Weinergate really is confirmation of a suspicion I've had for awhile that America has quietly become more prudish in the past few years, and this is a very bad thing.


Silly, and unfortunately dangerous, as recent events demonstrate. Because it's one thing not to be sexually adventurous, but quite another to sit in judgment of people whose sexual curiosities ick you out, whether done out of meanness or defensiveness. And lately, I've just generally noticed a trend towards more openly bashing people for seeking pleasure, even and often especially if they harm no one else in doing so.

Read the whole thing. Really. All of it. Chances are good Marcotte brings up at least one thing you haven't considered as a mark of prudery, and that she makes a good case for it.

There's also an echo in her post of a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine about a week ago. My friend started it off with this:

The queer movement spent decades trying to convince people that we should be taken seriously because we posed a real threat to the status quo. Now we spend all our time trying to convince everyone that we don't pose any threat to anything, so the right should stop picking on us, already! I am of the whiplash generation of lesbians.

I will fight the marriage amendment with all my might because I believe that everyone has a right to marry, but I feel like, by getting us to spend all our time fighting for marriage and for open inclusion in the military, the right has recruited us to do the work of dismantling radical queerness for them.

I think she's wrong about the recruitment. I think it's more a question of discarding the people and tactics that have taken the gay rights movement as far as it's come now that the gates appear to be in reach. But like my friend, I'll fight with the crowd on individual rights issues. Otherwise? I'm hanging out with the drag queens. I'm talking to the leather girls. I'm having drinks with the sex educators and burlesque dancers and poly people.

Why? Because with the exception of a very few other people, these people are the ones who offer me freedom. These are the people who don't care what is hiding in my email or DMs or with whom I flirt or how many inches of my cleavage or legs or anything else are visible. These are the people who understand the costs of arbitrary rules and who are stirring things up enough that we can figure out what is necessary (compassion and good communication) and what is arbitrary (almost everything else). These are the people capable of having the kinds of conversations that philosophy undergrads only dream of, many of which make it to this blog in one form or another.

So go read about prudery. Then go think about the costs of demanding that rights be granted only if something "isn't a choice" or if the alternative is death or if granting the right won't lead to granting another. Think about how narrow this box we're asking for really is. No matter where you sleep, is that where you want to live?

June 05, 2011

Living in the Dark

It's no secret that my childhood was no sunny idyll. If you've managed to miss it, you can catch up some here and here and here. It's not much fun, though.

I've spent much of the last week swapping stories that aren't going to make it onto the blog with a friend. It isn't something I usually want to do, but this is someone whose experience was close enough to mine that it really is a way of telling each other we aren't alone--now. We made it. We may be broken, but at least somebody out there understands why and how and how far we've come.

That makes the timing of this WSJ article bemoaning the darkness of modern young adult literature all the more infuriating.

Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

If you think it matters what is inside a young person's mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn't, on a personal level, really signify.

Victorian romantic nonsense. Childhood wasn't a happy, sheltered period then for more than a handful of privileged kiddies, and it still isn't. Despite what a view from the WSJ might want you to believe, kids deal with an amazing amount of crap: unhappy parents, parental substance abuse, poverty, neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, unreasonable and/or unreachable expectations, anxiety, depression, bullying. And that's just counting the kids who aren't somehow "weird." Few of us makes it out unscathed, and none of us make it out completely ignorant.

Jackie Morse Kessler (one of the scary dark authors mentioned in the article) does a good job of translating adolescence into numbers in her response:

According to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults, “12% to 24% of young people have self-injured” and “about 6%-8% of adolescents and young adults report current, chronic self-injury.” According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “about 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at one point.”

One in 10. So in a classroom of 30 teens, 3 of them either are or will self-injure.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and another 15 million suffer from binge eating disorder.

I was one of those 10 million females.

CyberMentors indicates that “as many as 70% of all young people have experienced some form of bullying” and “1 million kids are bullied every week.”

Let me repeat that: One million kids, every week, are bullied. This is not okay.

Nor is it okay to deny that these kids and these stories exist in order to maintain your sunshiny, simplistic, privileged view of what their childhood should have been like (particularly when all you really need to do is ask someone to help you find the cheery books of your own adolescence). That just makes you one more abuser, even if you wrap your denial in concern:

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

Well, now, you see, this is the sort of thing that actually gets studied. In fact, Dr. Madelyn Gould has made a career of studying the almost purely young adult phenomenon of suicide clusters. And what she has to say is somewhat different:

But the most significant and critical red flag that predicts adolescent suicide risk, according to Gould and other researchers, is the presence of an underlying mental health problem. In teens, that's most commonly depression, anxiety and alcohol or drug abuse.

"Even in the context of someone else's suicide, without that underlying vulnerability, they're not going to go on to attempt suicide or die by suicide," Gould says.

Are there reasons to take care when creating a book like this? Of course there are, but that isn't the argument being made in the WSJ. That argument is that things like this should remain hidden, that they shouldn't intrude on a parent who wants a happy book for their little angel (who is, of course, absolutely not hiding anything scary from said parent).

They were hidden when I was younger. What I had then was "oh-em-gee, growing up is so weird and embarrassing" books by people like Judy Blume (which would have been wonderful had my main problem been embarrassment, and which I'm happy to know exist for those kids) and a handful of read-this-and-be-defined-by-the-issue books. I read adult books to find what I needed--books where broken people did things despite being broken. Luckily for me, my parents had a large and good library of this kind of book. Most kids I knew in situations like mine had to go without.

Now, though, many of those books are classified as young adult. More books like this are being written for young adults and put places where they can find them easily. And, having had the good fortune to talk to a number of young adult authors and editors, I can assure that these people are taking extreme care with their material and their audiences. While it may not be the case in book reviewing, people who make books for young adults don't get very far by not knowing their audience or by treating them with disrespect.

So instead of concern trolling and wishing for a return to a nonexistent better past, maybe the WSJ reviewer (whose name, I admit, I haven't bothered to look up for this post) should read a few more of those books. Maybe, just maybe, it'll help her develop a better understanding of the needs of those kids. And who knows, maybe even a touch of empathy.