Sunday, May 16, 2021

The city mouse and the country mouse

I grew up at the edge of a city, but I always dreamed of being a farmer or living way out in the country. Living here in a small town has been the closest I've ever gotten to that.

In many ways, living in a small town is the best of both worlds: there's plenty of nature around, but it's still five minutes to the grocery store. And our town isn't so small as to limit what we can access very much. There might be fewer options, but we have doctors, dentists, restaurants, even a (rather minimal) hospital.

Despite that, though, we're moving 45 minutes closer to the big city, to a suburb I'm just going to call Bigger Town. Because what we don't have are jobs that pay a one-income living for a family of six. John's been commuting over 90 minutes a day for about two years now, and that's really sapped his spirit. He's tried and tried, but librarians in this area tend to make under $40,000 a year--it's a job for married ladies whose husbands also work, or perhaps older people who don't want to retire.

I'm sad about it, but I'm also trying to find the bright side in moving closer to the city. Tons of people would love to live near a city, and many would never dream of living anywhere else.


Cities are full of things to do. Museums, restaurants, concerts, big libraries, water parks, community theaters, classes for kids. The libraries have more books. The shopping district has more shops.

In the city, there are more people to hang out with. That means a better chance of finding people who share your interests. I could find a writing group near me. I hear there's even a children's Magic: The Gathering club.

Downside of all this is that there are people when you don't want to be with people. Your yard is small if you have any, and you might share walls with noisy people. The streets are never quiet. More people means less starlight and birdsong.

My relationships with humans have always been fraught. The worst thing nature has ever done to me has been a bee sting. So it's no wonder I tend to pick nature every time.

But, you know, I'm looking to relearn how to interact with people, so maybe having a lot of opportunities to do that will be Good For Me.


The tradeoff for more people is less nature. I live next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It's absolutely gorgeous here, especially if you go two minutes or so out of town. Even from our upstairs windows we can see the Blue Ridge. 

Seattle has a giant mountain and two large bodies of water going for it--you still get to look at some nature, even in the middle of the city. Bigger Town isn't like that. It has parks, but you have to go to them. It's flat, and I don't like flat.

Here, we have woods in our actual yard. Okay, a strip of trees, but you can climb them. We have lots of birds. We have redbuds and dogwoods and holly. When I'm feeling depressed, it's hard for me to get in the car and go somewhere. But I can sit at the window or go out in the yard and get some nature therapy. I really feel it feeds my soul.

High population density, I am told, is much better for the environment. Living closer to work means less energy use and emissions. Townhouses and apartments mean less land is taken up with housing and more can be left for animal habitats. Our yard is populated by deer and bears, but that's because their proper wild habitat is shrinking. As roads encroach into the forest, more animals are killed in road accidents. So love of nature should encourage me not to live smack in the middle of it.

And it does, but it's tough.


Small Town is more diverse than you'd think, but it's very segregated. The Justice Map shows our current neighborhood as 100% white. Just down the hill there's a little block that's allegedly 100% Black. I'm sure that's at least somewhat inaccurate, but not by a lot. 

They say what you see growing up is what you expect, what you assume is normal and right. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I think that was good for me. I knew racist garbage for racist garbage early on, because it wasn't accurate to what I'd experienced. I'd like the same for my kids.

Bigger towns and cities are almost always much more diverse. And the town we're moving to is much more shaded and speckly on the Justice Map. Feels . . . I dunno . . . more American. More representative of what this country is actually like.


Cities are more liberal. It's a reason I wanted out of the city to begin with, back when I was ten million times more conservative than I am now. Small Town is red as red can be. Trump and Thin Blue Line flags everywhere. Racist comments said openly. People lining the street to pray the rosary against gay marriage. Awkwardly, a lot of those people know me and don't know I think differently now, so I find myself constantly being assumed much more conservative than I am. I don't want to start fights, but I also don't want to smile and nod through a rant about how trans people are ruining society.

I find it ironic in the extreme that I was so conservative when I lived in Seattle and am so liberal now that I live here. Maybe I'm a little contrary. Maybe I just didn't understand just how much further right the right wing went.

Anyway, Bigger Town is about 60% Democrat, meaning it's liberal, but shouldn't be a bubble either. I would like to meet some more like-minded people.


A thing they don't tell you, when you're considering a life path, is that most college-track jobs are in cities. College specializes you, and the more specialized the thing you do, the less likely you'll be able to find an opening for it in a town of 10,000. Small towns have openings for doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and optometrists. Teachers and librarians too, but the pay will be low. If you have student loans, you might not be able to pay them on a small-town salary.

Plumbers, cashiers, mechanics, barbers, and factory workers are needed everywhere. You can pick a town and live there; there will probably be a job for you. Though if you want to move from a small town to a larger city, you may find cost of living is a barrier.


You know all that fun stuff available in cities? The vast majority of it costs money. Whereas the entertainment available here in Small Town is largely cheap or free: hiking, wading, swimming in the creek. If we want to pay money, we can swim in the pool or rent a canoe. It's not terribly expensive.

In the city, everything costs so much more. The houses, the groceries, the activities. Making the switch is going to be tough. In Small Town, we've been living (relatively) like kings the past few years. Large house, large yard, cheap groceries. To move to Bigger Town, we will have to downsize by about 500 square feet of house and almost all the yard. We certainly can't keep up the suburban lifestyle some people manage close to the big city. Those houses are like a million dollars.


I never wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be surrounded by beauty. It took me years of adulthood to realize that beauty costs money.

The country is beautiful, right? My dream was something like this:

It turns out this costs a bundle. If you are poor and live in the country, what you can afford is more like this:

Likewise, there are beautiful, picturesque city neighborhoods, like this one:

But if you're of reasonable means, you're just as likely to live here:

So the short answer is, if you want beauty, try being upper-middle class. Or at least don't try to raise four kids on one income. The first street we lived on in this town wasn't aesthetic at all. Where we live now is much nicer, but it costs an amount that hardly anybody pays out here.

That said, there are more free beautiful things in the country. The spur of the mountains that sticks out over Small Town is one of my favorite things, and I see it any time I drive anywhere. There are lovely drives all over this area. Even just taking the kids to school means driving past people's beautifully landscaped yards, with tulips and flowering trees . . . and yes, some number of crumbling buildings and cars on cinderblocks.

I've had ten years of practice finding the beauty here. I know where it is, and I am familiar enough with the ugly bits that my eye skips over them. Whereas when I go to Bigger Town, I mostly see this: 

The main drag is just one long soul-destroying succession of strip malls interspersed with used car lots. I hate it.

But, of course, there's more to the town than that. There are some lovely parks. There are cute, picturesque neighborhoods. The house we're hoping to buy is surrounded by some patches of trees, so I won't be starved for nature. And the art museum isn't very far.

And perhaps I can see beauty in some unexpected things. I always need to learn to do that more. People, for instance. That's a place beauty can always be found, but fear keeps me from looking.

* * *

I cried today, driving back from the grocery store. I will definitely miss living here. And it feels deeply unfair the way life conspires to push me away from things I want, the way none of the choices are simple and easy, the way decisions made long ago tie us down into consequences nobody wanted. I get so deeply attached to places. I'm sometimes struck with homesickness for a place I visited one time, for one week.

Small Town is going on the huge mantlepiece in my mind of Places I'll Miss Forever. And I'm going to a place that feels terrifying and strange, though I have lived there before. I worry my soul will be flattened out, stomped, suffocated.

But a line of a poem came to me, And for all this, nature is never spent. Flowers grow in crannied walls and sunsets happen everywhere. I need the Earth, but I won't be leaving her. So maybe that's going to be enough.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The old Babysitters Club and the new show

 Next up on my "reread and ruin classics from my childhood" is The Babysitters Club. I devoured those books as a kid. There must have been a million. And they were a quick read, perfect for winning library reading challenges. Sometimes I'd read several in a single day.

I remember being really jealous of these girls, with their independence and their babysitting jobs and their tight friend group. I had none of those things. Of course, I was about nine and ten when I read them. My dream was to be like them when I was a bit older (I was not).

With that vaguely in my memory, I sat down to watch the show by myself, and within moments was swarmed by kids who also wanted to watch it. They picked it for their shows most nights, especially Miriam and Michael (6 and 9).

You guys, I loved it. That feel of girls living their best lives and being responsible and solving friendship problems was just how I remembered. The characters looked and acted how I imagined, though the ones in the show are a bit more diverse (Mary Anne is biracial and Dawn is Hispanic). Their personal styles are updated (no leg warmers or giant ponytails) but their vibes are the same. Claudia is my fashion icon, personally. Kristy remains totally "square, don't care." Stacey, I assume, is still cool. I wouldn't know what the cool kids wear these days.

They stuck closer than most reboots to the original plots: Kristy not wanting her mom to get remarried, Claudia's grandmother Mimi having a stroke, Dawn moving into the area, Mary Anne shyly crushing on Logan. Like the books, each show is narrated by a different girl but includes what's going on in the lives of the other girls. And like the books, each episode contains some actual babysitting.

A few new issues are introduced: Janine explains internment to Claudia; Mary Ann babysits a trans girl (and stands up for her bravely). Some stuff went over my kids' heads. In one episode, Kristy gets her period, and I had to explain that to my kids. Which is fine, they were due for it. It makes me wonder: what age is BSC really for? The girls are about 12 or 13, but I know I read them much younger, and here my kids are watching the show that young too. I think the appeal could be pretty wide: my kids certainly enjoyed it, but there are nods to things only adults would really catch (Handmaid's Tale and Hunger Games references). 

Most of all, I loved watching the girls face their demons (Mary Ann's shyness, Kristy's bossiness, Claudia's grades, Stacy's fear of bullying) and come out on top. I honestly felt a little teary at times rooting for "my girls." It's just such a preteen show, where (for instance) learning to say no to a pushy adult is a serious Triumph. You feel the full weight of everything the way the girls do, that is, deeply.

Anyway, after watching it I had to go back and read at least one of the books. I hadn't realized just how easy they are to read--really, more like a second-grade reading level than a seventh-grade one. That's actually a benefit, meaning they can work both for younger kids dreaming of being older and for actual preteens who aren't strong readers. The style is very breezy and light. No wonder I plowed through them so fast.

But the depth in the show is definitely there in the books. There's a lot of babysitting; honestly I probably learned most of what I used in my early babysitting work from them.

Verdict? They hold up, and the show is every bit as good.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Cancel culture commandments

The first rule about cancel culture is, don't criticize cancel culture. Because why would you criticize it unless you want to be a terrible person with no consequences? The corollary is that the only people who do criticize cancel culture have already been canceled, and thus anything they say on the topic can be immediately dismissed. You can't even reference what they have said on the topic, however insightful, or people will sneer, "Oh, I didn't know you stanned [REDACTED], guess you're a [REDACTED] like them!"

But I really think it's time to lay down a few ground rules. It's going to take some social pressure to make these ground rules stick, and the only way to make that happen is by people being gutsy enough to occasionally, mildly criticize the excesses of cancel culture.

I don't think nobody should be canceled. I think it's great when outspoken racists get uninvited from things, or people stop watching movies made by serial rapists. The trouble is that the worst people are pretty much uncancelable (about which more later) and consequences only start to stick when the person wasn't that profitable an option anyway. So, as a tool for making human society generally less cruddy, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I can't stop people from starting cancel mobs against people they don't like, and I further can't uncancel anyone after the fact. I am also, bee tee dubs, not powerful enough to cancel anyone anyway (canceling is not the organic process it appears). But I can make a few personal commitments of how I intend to behave, with regard to canceling.

1. Humans operate in teams; keep those teams big.

I tend to think tribalism is bad, and I tried for a while to consider everyone equally my teammate. But it doesn't really work. There are people with whom I have almost no common ground; pretending that isn't so is a recipe for frustration. So yes, everyone should find their team.

But everyone, the left in particular, has a tendency to shrink those teams. To eject people they don't like from their team, for slight reasons. Protestant denominations splinter till it's five people in one strip mall church and five in another, and they hate each other. I recently learned that #ExposeChristianSchools and #ExposeChristianHomeschooling can't abide each other. Same basic mission of bringing some kind of oversight to education, would be more powerful together, but there was a feud a couple years ago and now they're not friends.

I don't want to shrink my team. I want my team to consist of everyone I can find common ground with. So when a fight is going down, I try not to come in, guns blazing, on either side. I have principles, of course; I'm outspoken about those at ordinary times. But mid-Twitter-fight is rarely a good time for that. No matter who says otherwise, it's okay to sit it out.

I don't cast people off for wrong terminology or being randomly obnoxious once in a while. The autism community is very emphatic that "autistic person" is correct and "person with autism" is not correct, but I'm not the language police. If you come to me saying "what can I do for people with autism," I'm going to tell you. At some point, if our conversation goes on a while, I might mention the terminology issue, but honestly, I think most people using person-first are doing that because they were told it was more sensitive. The last thing they want to do is offend anybody, so acting like they're the enemy is unfair.

When your teams are big, you're in a better position to reach and educate people who are interested in learning. You also have more allies if you're ever in need of something. Ever-increasing purity requirements will leave you with hardly anyone on your side.

2. I don't believe in guilt by association.

Say person A does a bad thing. Then person B defends them, perhaps not knowing the full story. And person C collaborates on a project with B and didn't disavow them after A's cancelation. And person D follows C on Twitter. How guilty is person D?

Zero, zilch, nada. I refuse to play that game. We're all six degrees from Kevin Bacon, or somebody who once did a hatespeech.

Sometimes people go around on Twitter and demand that everyone unfollow [PERSON] and everyone who still follows [PERSON] is bad. That especially sucks for people who aren't on Twitter all day and totally missed what [PERSON] did. Are we all morally obligated to spend hours tracking down caps of deleted tweets so we can decide whether to alienate [PERSON] or person's enemies? Let's not. Let's condemn bad people for being bad and leave everyone else the heck alone. It's okay not to police your friend list that hard.

3. Always be polite and never, ever escalate.

I always try to be nice on the internet. Sarcasm doesn't translate, and more people than your intended audience may see it.

If you do get into a fight, it may occur to you to fight dirty. They called you a name, so you put them on blast to your larger number of followers, thus demonstrating that you are more powerful on the internet than them! Don't do this, it looks petty.

Don't ever, ever, ever, no matter how justified it seems, take things past the internet. Don't call people's employers complaining about their behavior, don't threaten to sue, don't call a swat team OBVIOUSLY. Not only because these things are almost always uncalled for, but because the other person will feel justified responding in kind. You may think they can't hurt you, but I've seen a lot of internet bullies find a way. Just don't ever do this.

If you are the subject of an internet mob, large or small, your best bet is to log off for the day. They often get bored and wander off. Whereas if you stay online, arguing however politely, sooner or later you will start to get upset and be a little less tactful. That's when they scent blood in the water. I'd never judge someone for getting heated mid-cancel-mob, but it will work out much better for you if you comport yourself with grace and/or silence.

4. No marginalization Olympics.

There seems to be a set of unspoken rules among social justice advocates that goes like this: there's some kind of ladder of marginalization, everyone knows where everyone is on it, and you can punch up as hard as you want but can't punch down ever.

Trouble is, there isn't, in fact, a hierarchy of how un-privileged you are. Which is worse, being trans or being both Black and disabled? I sure as heck don't know. I also don't know if someone is trans or gay or disabled unless they tell me, and they don't owe me that information, ever. A lot of people have come out, not because they wanted to, but because they were told they couldn't talk about [topic] unless they were [marginalization]. So they were bullied for doing so until they finally came out and said OKAY OKAY I ACTUALLY AM THAT. But that's hardly the ideal coming-out, is it?

Honestly, whoever you are, you still shouldn't be terrible on the internet. You don't know who you're talking to. And you don't know what they've gone through, personally, regardless of the categories they're in. Maybe they're a white woman (the worst thing to be, in these conflicts, so far as I can see. Because you earn zero marginalization points for it but you're way easier prey than the men) but they have a really traumatic background and are going through some stuff.

It's just really super gross when, say, A says something. B responds aggressively, so C snipes back in kind. And then C gets quote-tweeted everywhere with "look at that nasty thing she dared to say to a person more marginalized than her!" Well maybe she didn't realize? Maybe, for a second, she forgot the rules in the heat of, you know, being yelled at herself?

You should try to be nice to people who might be struggling more than than you are, that's true. But that could be anyone.

5. On the other hand, don't ignore power dynamics.

Ever notice who the Twitter cancel brigade comes for? It isn't established authors, in the book field, it's usually debut authors, new agents, people who are seen as having a little power but who are by no means top of the heap. Trans people get canceled incessantly for some reason, by other trans people. Women are canceled more than men. People of color are canceled a lot, for tiny things. I'm still a little shaken by the story of an Asian debut author being called racist against Black people (in a fantasy novel that, I believe, did not contain Black people) and her book release being pushed back. There are plenty of white authors who actually are racist!

The reason is that it's a heck of a lot easier to come for these people than the actual power brokers. You can't cancel J. K. Rowling, not really. You can cancel people a bit more vulnerable than that, though, so that's who they always come for. The most vulnerable of all are people whose entire life is online: people marginalized in so many ways they haven't been able to find a supportive community except online. To these people, an online shunning feels like the end of everything good in their lives.

6. Cancel for serious things only.

You don't have to stay friends with someone who's behaving badly, of course. When there's a cancel brigade out against someone, you certainly shouldn't reflexively defend them. (Oh my god do you want the mob to come for you? Because that's how you get the mob to come for you.) 

Consider what they actually did. This can be difficult, because very often the only version you see on Twitter is something like "is a bigot," with all details elided. Personally, I think it's deliberate. It's a lot easier to get people on your side with "X is a bigot" than with "X recommended ten books and all of them were by white people." (Made up example.)

But once you do find out, it's up to you to decide if it's a big deal. I consider sexual assault a big deal, and long-term patterns of racist behavior. I don't think cussing at people who are in the middle of trying to cancel you is a big deal. If someone does something I think is a big deal, I unfollow them. Maybe I make a mental note not to buy their book. I still don't join the cancel mob. There's always plenty of people doing it, and I don't see that it's helpful to join in. 

Plus, if you participate in a cancel mob, even in a mild way like "I agree X behavior is bad," it's very likely that the victim will attempt to cancel back and go for you next. As an unfamous nobody on in the internet, your best bet is to stay as far from drama as possible.

7. There ought to be some way to come back from it.

There are no rewards from cancel culture for a sincere apology. Every apology is assumed insincere; at this point one may as well double down as not. It shouldn't be like this. If you act badly on the internet (everyone has, because no one is perfect) you should be able to say you're sorry and eventually move past it. Instead, the internet seems to be keeping a permanent hit list (I mean "receipts") and you can't ever move on.

I don't exactly have an action item for this one. I don't have the power to decide when someone's changed. But I tend to ignore decade-old screenshots because honestly, odds are that whoever found them went digging for some nefarious reason. For instance, gamergate types love to do this to feminists to make their own allies turn on them. Generally that stuff is either way out of context or expresses a worldview they don't hold anymore. Obviously I'm going to come down hard on the side of not holding people to their past ideas. Half the stuff on this blog, I wouldn't stand by. I hope people would give me the grace of understanding I've changed a lot.

I've heard never to apologize because it won't placate the mob. And it's true, it won't. But it still is a good thing to do, if you see that you made a mistake. Sensible people may give you credit for it, even if the loudest voices don't.

8. Consider the why

Why do people cancel? There are tons of reasons, some of which are better than others.

  • They're looking for a sense of justice, of fairness. It isn't fair if somebody does evil and isn't punished, especially if you've done less-bad things and had worse consequences. Just ask my kids about this one.
  • They're angry and want revenge. (On that topic, this thread is fire.)
  • They're jealous of the attention that person is getting and want to let everyone know that person isn't so great.
  • They've been told their whole movement is tainted if they don't "call out" bad actors. The right loves to say this to the left, which is ridiculous because the right hardly ever calls out their bad actors.
  • Likewise they genuinely don't want bad people in their movement; they worry these bad people will cause harm and throwing them out will prevent harm.
  • Some people are just bullies throwing their weight about by doing this. After a while you start to notice who you're always seeing starting things. Avoid these people like [people should have avoided] the plague. 
  • Sometimes the actual cancel material is dug up by people completely outside the group, like when transphobes try to get the trans community to throw out a fellow trans person.
  • Sometimes it's a "cancel back" attempt: someone tried to cancel them, so they try to find dirt on the person who tried to cancel them. At that point, whoever's more popular wins. (This is a good reason never ever to start or participate in these things, by the way.)
Consider first who is harmed by the bad action. Is anyone? Or is this just a sign that a person is a bad person deep down inside, so that we need to treat them as irredeemably bad? If no one is being or has been harmed, it's generally best to let well enough alone.

Next, consider what you're trying to accomplish. Ruin that person's career or friendships? To what end? If you don't have a positive goal, like "making our group safe against this genuinely hurtful person," then maybe let it go. Not because what they did wasn't bad, but because there isn't an action you could take that will make it better in any way.

9. Basically, steer clear of internet drama.

Don't start or join internet mobs. Use twitter to plug your product or find friends but don't be on twitter all the time.

Machievelli said you should never take a person's property while leaving them alive, but instead kill them immediately. The reason is that if he's still alive, he now has nothing to do but seek revenge, whereas if he's dead you don't have to worry about him anymore.

With cancelation, the same thing is true: don't fight with people, block 'em. Block early and often. Somebody is behaving badly on the internet? Don't linger and give them reasons to remember your name. Erase them from your internet life.

Further content

These are just my personal rules; they don't have to be yours.

Here is one good video on this topic (warning: creator is super canceled). I've also watched about half of this one and it was good (warning: I don't watch a lot of YouTube so you're lucky if I watch half of anything before sharing it).

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Two models of marriage

The Vatican made waves recently by repeating yet again that it will never bless gay marriages. To people who actually follow that conversation, it came as no surprise. Despite liberals who think Pope Francis is on their team, and traditionalists who think he's dismantling the church stone by marble stone, the institution has tremendous ideological momentum. It's not shifting an inch on this, at the very least, not until it's been long enough that they can plausibly pretend they never were against gay marriage in the first place.

What it really comes down to (as Catholics keep patiently explaining, because they think we don't get it) is a different view of what marriage is, what it's for.

The modern view of marriage is that it's a commitment of two people who love each other to do life together. That it can take different forms based on what the people want. Even the vows said at modern marriages are often hand-written by the couple from scratch: they decide what they're committing to, and while other people are invited to witness, they don't really get to decide what that couple's marriage means.

The Catholic view is much more communitarian. There is one thing that marriage is, and you sign up for it or you don't. That's symbolized by a wedding liturgy that's mostly rigid. If you're lucky, you might be able to pick one of a list of readings, and the music. The vows, you simply repeat.

This marriage model is centered around the creation of a family with children. You can have a marriage without them, but you have to be open to them in theory. They even ask you if you are willing to welcome them in the ceremony. I also got prayed over, individually, with a prayer that I be blessed with children. I was, at the time, down for it, but in retrospect it seems very strange.

Because my wedding was not about me (as more than one priest felt the need to remind me at the time). It was about the community, and me taking my place in one of the roles intended for serving that community: wife, nun, or single person. Each of these is a vocation, a calling to service. The specific difference of the vocation I chose was parenthood.

The Church will remind anyone who listens that marriage, historically, existed for children, to create a stable family for them. Even before Jesus, people were getting married, and they mostly did it to keep track of which children were whose and to support those children's mothers. Love was more optional.

The church has presided over weddings of twelve-year-old girls and fourteen-year-old boys. (The minimums are slightly older now.) It has married princesses to princes they'd never met at the command of their parents. It has preached the dominance of husband over wife, and then later their equality. The important thing was that the couple intended to have sex that had some chance of being procreative. And no sex can ever be had besides that kind, within marriage. Contraception of course is out. Because that's not what marriage is for. Catholic marriage is for children.

Naturally, if that's what it's about, gay marriage is never going to be a thing. They might love each other, they might intend to stay together for life, but they can't reproduce together naturally, through procreative sex, so it's not Catholic marriage.

But what that really makes me think is this: who looks at these two visions of marriage with their eyes wide open and picks the Catholic ideal? Who picks the one where they are signing up for a prefab framework they can't alter, which is purely about begetting and raising children as a service to the community? Who signs up to have their equality to their husband be a matter for debate? History is all very well, but history was terrible for most people, especially for women. Historically-accurate marriage was no great thing.

I now believe in human agency a lot more than I did. I believe that people should get married if they love each other and choose to. I believe that marriage could have sex as a part of it, or not. It could have children coming along, or not. It could be held in a church as part of a larger community, or not.

The worst part of this debate is that the Catholic Church does not believe that people should get to choose how they think about marriage. It wants its version to be dominant and non-optional. It does not believe gay couples should be able to get married by the state, adopt children, or be recognized as equal in any way. It has combated every step modern society has taken to revise the idea of marriage, from contraception to no-fault divorce. In America, it's already trying to hide that history and saying "it's JUST that we can't bless your marriage, don't we get religious freedom?"

But I remember. It wants to impose a procreation-focused marriage ideal on everyone. It is willing to use legal force to do so, because it thinks it's the Good Cop helping you cooperate before you get handed over to the Bad Cop, which is God. There really isn't any room for compromise between their vision and the world's.

I just think the world's idea is better.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Time Quintet, because I promised

 When I picked apart Tolkien and Lewis (i.e. my FAVORITE authors) somebody asked if I was going to do L'Engle next. So I got the one-volume chonker of the entire Time Quintet and read . . . well, most of it. I got a little way into Many Waters and said to myself, well, the kids are never going to be allowed to read this anyway.

Well, I still enjoyed them. Meg and Charles Wallace are great characters and the worlds L'Engle builds are still compelling. I had fewer gripes about the values in the books than about the writing. I wanted to take out a red pen and demand some heavy rewrites, especially in The Wind in the Door. The Wind in the Door appears to have been written in a single sitting, on an acid trip, and never once revised.

I'm not saying I didn't still like it, but . . . well, the editor in me is outraged that it could be so good and yet not be better.

Anyway, let's start with A Wrinkle in Time. It's the most popular and for good reason: it makes sense on its own, it has a nice contained plot that's easy to explain, most of it takes place in a corporeal reality that it's possible for the human mind to understand. So that's nice.

One thing I really like about it, compared to Narnia, is the absence of an actual god-figure. Instead we have some slightly inept ladies (retired stars/possible angels) who don't thoroughly know what they're doing and literally can't help sometimes. When you're writing a religious allegory or religiously-themed story, you can't have God actually in it helping too much or there's no story, but if God is in there, he ends up looking like a jerk because he's not helping. Narnia falls into both those pitfalls, by having Aslan sometimes not helping for no good reason, and other times taking over and fixing things too easily.

Likewise the parents in any children's book are an issue, like what kind of neglectful monsters are they that they don't solve the problems for the kids? In AWIT, Mrs. Murry doesn't know what's going on and Mr. Murry is obviously missing for most of the book, so they're able to escape looking terrible. I don't care for Mr. Murry when he does appear; he seems pretty dense and overly concerned about Respect and Politeness from his son who's, you know, obviously possessed. But he does eventually figure out that Meg knows what she's talking about, so I'm not too mad about it.

I like how the main conflict is Meg learning her worth and knowing she has something to offer even when everyone else in the book is smarter and prettier and better at sports than her. I like that she's encouraged to stay angry, and that the answer in the end is love.

The only part I really deeply hate is the genetic explanations for things. The Murrys don't belong in their small town, because . . . they're genetically superior. Because their parents are two scientists, obviously all the children must be brilliant. Meg is reassured that she actually is brilliant and will be pretty--not, you know, that people have value even if they're neither brilliant nor pretty.

Calvin, honestly, doesn't belong in this story at all in my opinion. It's reasonable that Charles Wallace, being both smarter and more spiritual than Meg, knows how to tesseract right away. It isn't really reasonable that Calvin does. It feels like he exists in the book just to make Meg feel bad about herself, by being effortlessly better than her at everything. And why is he so much better? He'll tell you: it's because he's a "sport." His family is genetically inferior (look at his gross ugly abusive mom!) but he's some kind of genetic throwback and therefore perfect in every way. Like, WHY. I hate that. We could have used this moment to point out that genetics isn't destiny and everyone's individual and Calvin just happens to be good at some things his parents aren't, but nope. L'Engle doesn't believe that.

The whole thing felt, when I was a kid, extremely relatable. I, too, felt weird and inadequate around "normal" people. My family was weird and smart and a little bit autistic. The reassurance that I was going to grow up into someone who was good at something, that the other kids were mean to me because they sensed I was superior, that I didn't have to be as smart as my brother to be worthwhile, that all mattered to me a lot when I was a kid. At the same time . . . I'm not sure it went the right way with any of this. It might feed in, a little bit, to the whole Superior Smart Kid thing a lot of us fell into, as our way of defending our self-worth against bullies.

Okay, so that's A Wrinkle in Time. What about A Wind in the Door?

Well, it's a mess, as I said. It felt like L'Engle was trying to cram too many things into one book. Are we talking about Meg learning to see the good in Mr. Jenkins, the mean principal? Or is this about "school" where the cherub teaches our characters how to . . . um . . . something? Or is it about curing Charles Wallace from mitochondrial disease? Having the bulk of the book take place in a dimension where you can't see or hear anything, but everything is transmitted through telepathy, was . . . a choice. It made it really difficult to relate to what was going on, because you couldn't picture anything.

Personally I would have scratched the "school" concept because it automatically lowers the stakes. Like, any time in a children's book, the children are simply facing a challenge adults have placed in front of them for educational purposes, I know that none of it really matters. It's not a life-and-death struggle, it's homework. Wouldn't it have made more sense to simply say "nobody can save Charles Wallace but you"?

Charles Wallace is getting bullied in this book, and we are told it's his fault for being weird and he needs to learn to act more normal. I hate this lesson with the heat of a thousand suns. He is obviously autistic and some of the adults in the story need to get their acts together to stop the bullying. Why should it be on him to change himself?

However, we do get a few alternative views. Calvin suggests that he'd do better in a city school, with more diversity. (This counters the Murrys' views of cities as horrible places full of crime.) Mr. Jenkins, by the end, seems he'll be CW's ally at school. So maybe it's not all on Charles Wallace to change.

The whole central struggle of the book (insofar as there is one in the tangle of plot) is that the farandolae inside Charles Wallace's mitochondria don't want to settle down, "Deepen," grow up, and do their jobs in the cell. They want to run around being wild, because an evil being is there telling them to do it. So Meg and Calvin have to telepathically convince them it's good for them to be what they were meant to be. That's the theme: be the thing that you are meant to be, be essentially Yourself, except when you have to pretend to be more normal at school, but really that's a service to being your true self . . . It's a little convoluted, but L'Engle does try to explain it all.

And like . . . I get it, some, but I also don't get it. How are you supposed to tell the real thing you are supposed to be from the thing you want to be? The thing you are supposed to be will make you happier, but you can't know that till you do it, and it might look like less fun from the outside. It struck me as the whole vocation nonsense in Regnum Christi, where the thing you are meant to do is always the thing you want least. What is the analog in real life? Growing up? Getting a job? Getting married?

On the whole, it's a heckin confusing book, which had the added bonus of making me think farandolae were real, and then when I found out they weren't, making me think mitochondria weren't real. My kids probably shouldn't read this till they're a little older, just because it makes so little sense.

Next I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The plot: Earth is facing nuclear war because this crazy dictator in South America is going to nuke everyone. Teenage Charles Wallace goes back in time to be all the dictator's ancestors and make them make better choices which will avert the nuclear war. Only it's all told from the point of view of grown-up Meg, who is now pretty as promised, who is telepathically linked to Charles Wallace the whole time. I really don't know why she chose to do it that way, instead of actually writing from Charles Wallace's point of view.

Anyway the solution to the story turns out to be making the right people marry each other, so that the South American dictator is descended from the blue-eyed of two prehistorical Welsh/Native American brothers. Blue eyes, you see, is a sign of goodness and the blue-eyed brother or cousin of each generation is the one with a good heart.

We never change the dictator's mind, or give him less traumatic life experiences. We change his genes, so that he's now blue-eyed and good, and doesn't want to shoot missiles anymore.


This is worse than all the previous genetic assumptions and just leaps right into genes-are-destiny. Is anybody's actions their fault at all, or is it just that good people are going to be good and bad people are going to be bad?

I do like that the book redeems Calvin's mother, who it turns out is part of this magical Welsh family even though she's forgotten almost everything important about it. But she plays a role by giving Meg and Charles Wallace an important poem.

I don't like that the lesson Charles Wallace takes away is that he should stop trying to direct any of the process or plot, but just go along with wherever the winds take him, land in whatever body he happens to be in, and God (not mentioned, but definitely God) will make everything work out. I like characters with agency, dangit. "Agency is bad" is a bad lesson. But the whole "genetics is destiny" thing is definitely why I'm not giving it to my kids just yet. It's expanded from a little annoying detail to the entire plot and I simply don't believe in it.

I'm not going to go into the last two because I didn't reread them. I will say Many Waters is not intended for children. It's mostly about sexy angels having sex with human women, and then everyone drowns, except one girl who's virginal and chaste but we also talk about her breasts a lot. Like . . . it might not be horribly toxic, but my memory of it is something like "sex is bad, it makes you almost die in childbirth, you can tell the good guys by the fact that they don't have sex." I was 12 or so when I read it, and that was too young for sure.

Who's a Madeline L'Engle stan here? Do you agree with my takes?

Sunday, January 31, 2021

New Year things


Today is the last day it's really reasonable to do a retrospective of 2020, so here goes.

Last year I resolved not to give up hope. That was all. I realized that I wasn't in control of very much in my life, because of Jackie mostly, and instead of making a resolution, I decided to hope for a few things.

Here is what I hoped I could do:
  • wean Jackie
  • potty train Jackie
  • get Jackie to sleep through the night
  • be able to accomplish more in a day
  • get a literary agent
  • finish 1-2 novels
  • Donald Trump gets voted out

The year fulfilled all of my worst fears by making it harder to do things than I had imagined. But on the other hand, it fulfilled almost all of my hopes. While John was on civil leave from work, I managed to finish 2019's novel, and by using all of my free time for the second half of the year, I finished (the rough draft of) a second. Since we had nowhere to go for months, it was a great time to potty train Jackie.

She slowly started sleeping through the night most of the time, over the course of the year. I weaned her on her birthday this year, so it's only a little late.

I did not accomplish more in a day. It helped that I lost my Latin teaching job (really, a relief given how much fun teaching Latin by zoom wouldn't be) but then I had to help my own kids do schoolwork so it came out in the wash. I did not get an agent.

We did vote out Donald Trump, thanks to everyone that turned out. He even left office. I didn't really relax till he had.

But honestly that's pretty good for a year when a) I didn't push myself too hard to accomplish anything, and b) it was a hell year to begin with.


One thing I didn't put down was get a writing job, though I've been wanting to do that for a while. Teaching really drains me, and I would like to be able to work in my jammies. Doubly so given the pandemic.

Well, a friend was looking for a job writing web content, so now that's what I do. It's very part time. I briefly picked up a second contract, but that stressed me out having so many articles on my plate, so it was a bit of a relief when that one didn't ask for more. When the kids are all back in school, I would like to pick up more jobs like that. I believe that I can, because a) I'm a pretty good writer, and b) pretty much every company needs a website, which needs a blog, which needs content, so that's a heck of a lot of demand. 

There's always a problem where there are more writers than there are eyeballs that want to read the content. But today, robots read every single website for keywords, so you don't even need a human audience to have a job.

Anyway, it feels really good to get validation for my writing. And also to have money that's all mine.


Jackie really is getting easier, very very slowly. She still wants attention an awful lot of the time. And when she wants a thing, you pretty much can't distract her or put her off. You do it or there's screaming and screaming and more screaming and flailing and hitting. It's hard. I don't love that part.

Because of the challenge she continues to be, specifically connected to stuff like sensory sensitivity, rigidity in routines, and shyness, I had her assessed for autism. This was both shorter and cheaper than what we did for Marko, because I took her to a child psychologist instead of a developmental pediatrician. I was worried that would mean they wouldn't see her issues, especially given she's a girl and thus not the standard profile.

But the doctor did see them, and confirmed she does have ("very mild!") autism. Which surprises me not at all, and is honestly a huge relief. It is hard to admit to people that she is the amount of trouble she is, even at four years old, and not have an explanation for it. 

When you have a wild, fussy, or demanding child, people judge the heck out of you. But the second you say the A-word, suddenly it's "oh I love autistic people, I am so supportive, you're so strong and great."

Sorry, but if you don't love and support wild, fussy, demanding children without having to be told about their label, you don't love autistic people. Because they're everywhere and they aren't born diagnosed.

That's my rant for today.


Resolutions for this year? Are we doing that? Is there a point to that?

Things I would like to have happen, COVID willing and the crick don't rise:
  • I want my COVID vaccine.
  • I want to go to WorldCon, the convention where the Hugo Awards are happening.
  • I want to relearn how to spend time with people. And hug them. I'm gonna hug so many people.
  • I want to spend as much time as possible this summer outside. In the pool if at all possible. I finally have pool-age kids and we missed a whole summer.
  • I'd like to sign my kids up for ballet, gymnastics, or martial arts next fall.
  • I'd like to take a long break from writing, because of burnout, but then write something completely new in November.
  • If I run through my agent list and still don't have an agent, I'm submitting my novel to indie presses. The publishing industry is consolidating too much and sometimes small is better.
  • Pick up some freelance writing contracts maybe.
It's going to be a sad year if most of this stuff has to be canceled. Please stay home till you get vaccinated so we can have a real summer this year.


One last thing is a word. Gotta have a word, I've been doing this for years and I'd hate to leave a gap, even though next year is as up-in-the-air as last year was.

The word that came to me is PEOPLE.

In 2020 I actually got more social, in a sense. I've been pretty isolated for years, because of kids, especially one kid who hangs upside-down and screams when I try to have an adult conversation. But this year, everyone was online all day like me. I had some good groups and talked a lot with my friends. Which is lovely.

So next year I'd like to keep that going, and if at all possible move that outside the house. Start by hanging out with the people I already know and miss, and then maybe, slowly, meet other people I don't already know. I know! Terrifying! But I would really like to do that.

Happy moderately-new-still year. Do you have plans or a word?

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


 A few months ago, I read a book called Blindsight. It's a novel about first contact with aliens, but it was trying to make a point. The argument of the book was that consciousness is a useless thing for humans to have, that we'd all be better off if we blindly did things without being aware of them.

I don't feel it made its argument very well, in part because it fails to narrow consciousness down to a single thing, alternately defining it as self-awareness, empathy, and theory of mind. Those are all very different things!

So it made me want to talk about consciousness. What is it, is it useful, what consequences does it have?

Here are a few things the word "consciousness" is used to describe:

  • Taking in sensory data (awareness)
  • Being aware of oneself as a thinking person (self-concept)
  • Knowing that one's thoughts are one's thoughts and being able to inspect them (introspection)
  • Caring about other people (compassion)
  • Actually feeling what other people feel (empathy)
  • Being able to model what another person might know and feel (theory of mind)
In the book, the hero lacks empathy because of a brain surgery he had as a child, but is still able to model and predict other people's behavior through careful observation. We are told that he's actually better than everyone else, because without that inconvenient "consciousness" he can more clearly see what's going on. At the same time, he actually destroys his own life because he can't react with empathy to his suffering girlfriend.

Another character explains that humanity is the only intelligent species in the galaxy that has consciousness. Everyone else is just blindly doing things and better off for it.  Communication with aliens is like a "Chinese room"--a thought experiment where a person who doesn't know Chinese is able to communicate with Chinese notecards in a room full of them, but understands none of it. Nobody truly understands anything except humans, because we're the only ones with this useless self-awareness.

We're held back by our consciousness. In reality, sociopaths are the most successful and the only flaw is that some people aren't narcissists. We also can't communicate meaningfully with aliens, because only beings without consciousness can properly relate to one another.

This is a whole mess because it's not clear what he's talking about. Some of what he's talking about is self-concept, some is introspection, some is empathy. And all of these have a purpose, even on an evolutionary level! If we are introspective, if we can interrogate our thoughts and recognize them as separate from objective reality, we can arrive closer at a knowledge of reality than we could otherwise. Likewise, if we have empathy, we can cooperate with others and accomplish things we couldn't alone. One sociopath may be temporarily successful, but a species of all sociopaths wouldn't get very far, let alone invent space travel.

Personally, I don't think any of the things described as "consciousness" are true epiphenomena, useless to our practical survival ends. Sensory awareness is pretty vital for acquiring food. Self-concept seems like a necessary prerequisite to introspection, which is important for fine-tuning our perceptions and judgments. For instance, if you don't know that your thoughts are your thoughts, you'll never ask yourself if your thoughts are accurate and seek ways to make them more accurate.

Compassion, empathy, and theory of mind are all necessary for cooperation. Some people lack one or another of these. For instance, many autistic people have impaired theory of mind (they have trouble predicting what other people know or how they'll react), but they are still empathetic and capable of compassion. Conversely, in the TV series Sherlock, Holmes has no empathy but chooses to be compassionate. Still, cooperation works best when we have all of these abilities.

It seems to me that if "consciousness" were truly an epiphenomenon, an internal experience that doesn't help our survival in any way, we would never be able to know if an alien species had it or not. They would have all the capabilities we have, and we'd never know if they were experiencing it in the way we do.

But if consciousness is a thing we can test for, if it's empathy or awareness or introspection, then it's absolutely useful. It gives us abilities as a species that we couldn't have without it. And that's why I think aliens would be conscious too, if they made it into space at all.

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