Monthly Archives: January 2013

Head spaces, part 1

Many years ago I noticed that when my dreams included my workplace, the workplace was a weird amalgam of all the places I had worked at previously. Usually it was populated with the people I worked with at the time, but furniture, physical layout, and so forth, would include things from older work places.

Lots of dreams are that way. Frequently when I dream about family, any family, a lot of the dream will be set in the living room of my paternal grandparents. Except that the carpet is usually the giant persian rug that had been on the floor of Great-grandma S.J.’s living room. And often the ugly orange couch from the house Mom, my oldest sister, and I lived in after my parents’ divorce makes an appearance.

Over time my dream workplace has morphed, taking on some physical characteristics of each office or building I’ve worked in since. The resulting space is one that only makes sense in dream logic.

I could spend a lot of time trying to figure out why one detail is kept from one building and not another. Some people spend a lot of time mapping out the symbolism of their dreams. But while our subconscious includes details for a reason, the reason isn’t always SYMBOLISM. My dream workplace always has desks, presumably because pretty much everywhere I have worked there was a desk somewhere. I didn’t always have a desk of my own. Most of my jobs back in my teens didn’t require desks, but there was always someone at the work place whose job did require a desk.

A desk, then, is a prop that adds verisimilitude to the notion of workplace. Most of the time.

Certain desks may have slightly deeper meanings. I’m pretty sure that the desk with tons of drawers that never contain what I need represents frustration, while the emaculate immaculate desk with a place for everything and everything in its place represents insecurities.

If you thought that the clean desk would represent something positive, you don’t know how my brain works. See, the only way a desk of mine would be that organized were if I had just cleaned it out because I’m leaving the desk and/or job, or because someone else has messed with my stuff. Yeah, because of clean desk policies, I have had to move the piles off my work surface… But that just means that my sedimentary filing system has been moved out of sight.

Symbolism is always subjective, so if you’re looking for the meaning behind a set of choices your favorite writer or artist or director has made, just remember the words of Freddy Mercury: “If you see it, darling, it’s there.”

Things out of our control

I was lucky enough, growing up, to have a bunch of wonderful grandparents. Both sets of grandparents, all four of my great-grandmothers, and two of my great-grandfathers were still alive when I was born. All four great-grandmothers lived until I was at least in my teens (one lived until I was in my 30s).

Part of the luck was simply having them. I didn’t realize that until sometime during grade school, as I learned that very few of my classmates knew any of their great-grandparents. I remember one particular friend in sixth grade who practically accused me of lying when I told him about seeing one set of great-grandparents at Christmas, and two other great-grandmothers a few weeks earlier at Thanksgiving. Not only had all of his great-grandparents died before he was born, but at least a couple of his grandparents had, as well.

My parents married quite young, and theirs had before them. Consequently, one of my great-grandfathers didn’t reach retirement age until I was in kindergarten.

And they were quite a collection of characters. One great-grandfather had been a horse wrangler (actual job title), moonshine runner, and repairman. One grandfather had repaired tanks during WWII, the other had repaired bombers. One great-grandmother spent many years working as a waitress. Another, when she was 70, rescued a horse from her son’s ranch when it was going to be put down because it was “untameable.” Within a year, it would come running when she whistled, and if it misbehaved, would stand obediently and let her spank it with her cane (and afterward he sulked around her looking like a dog with its tail between its legs until she told him he was forgiven). One grandmother was a nurse. One was a City Treasurer.

I learned different things from each of them—skills I still use today. I can see bits of each one’s personality in myself.

And until tonight, I didn’t have to use the past tense for all of them.

My Grandma B. died earlier this evening. She was the last of my grandparents still alive.

In many ways the loss is more abstract than personal. I haven’t seen her in person in decades, as she lived in a remote town that literally is not on the way to anywhere. For various reasons—some mine, some theirs—I haven’t been close to most of the relatives on that side of the family for a long time. Because of the dementia, it’s been a few years since Grandma and I had a phone conversation where I was certain she knew who I was. So, for me, she’s been gone for some time.

I don’t feel as if I deserve condolences. Not like my aunt who has been living with and caring for her, and has now lost her mother. Or any of the other relatives who live nearby and watched her decline up close. So I feel almost like an emotional carpetbagger just writing this.

We can’t control death. We can postpone it a bit. We can certainly hasten it. But that is merely an illusion of control. We can’t change the past, and the future is slippery at best. The only thing we have control over is now. How we live, now. How we treat our neighbors, friends, and family, now.

Choose carefully.

Experiences, not things

The ads usually pop up as Christmas time approaches: give people the gift of experiences, not things. They suggest paid excursions, theatre tickets, sports event tickets, and so on, with an appeal against consuming natural resources. As a person with a house continually crammed full of stuff that I love but don’t really have room for, I understand the sentiment.

But I’m not terribly good at following it.

While I was browsing the dealer’s den at RustyCon (a small local sci fi convention), one of the booths was filled with zillions “Rare! Hard to Find!” soundtrack albums on CD and movies on DVD. I have a weakness for soundtrack albums and started flipping through the tightly packed rows of discs. Within the first half dozen I looked at, all labeled with a price of $44.95, were two which I had happened to buy in the last year at the iTunes store. One for 9.99 and the other for 7.99.

I have no doubt that many (if not most) of the discs he had there are not available for download from iTunes or Amazon or any of the other digital music sources. And I’m sure that many of them were difficult for him to obtain. Certainly storing and transporting those enormous piles of discs isn’t cheap. So I’m not in any way disparaging the vendor.

It’s just that seeing those two albums (one originally released in 2002, the other originally released in 1975) which I had by chance purchased digitally recently made me stop to think about the situation. The reason I like owning music is to listen to it from time to time. I have a rather daunting amount of music in my digital collection, and how often any individual track is listened to is rather less often than might justify even the typical digital price of 99₵ per song. So does it really make sense to spend 45 bucks on a disc with 12 – 16 tracks on it?

I had just this last week commiserated with two friends about our shelves and shelves full of music and movies, which even though many had been digitized, we were still reluctant to get rid of because the discs now constituted the backup. But we also were all a bit frustrated at how much space they took up.

Not too many years ago I still owned a couple boxes of music albums on vinyl. I hadn’t owned a machine that could play them in a few years, so I finally admitted it was time, and got rid of them. I should mention that among those boxes was the 1975 soundtrack I mentioned above which I recently purchased digitally.

I’m afraid all this thinking about how much stuff is cluttering up the house made me steer clear of the booksellers. If I stopped acquiring new audio books and ebooks, and just focused all my reading time on the piles (multiple) of “new books to read” beside my bed, it would likely take me a few years to get through them.

I have been enjoying myself at the con. I’ve had several good conversations, attended interesting panels, and yes, I bought some things. As a person who frequently has a table with things for sale at conventions, I don’t want people to stop buying things at cons, don’t get me wrong.

I just think that I, personally, need to focus more of my enjoyment on the experience, and less on carrying home a pile of toys and such afterward.

New shoes

I was walking home from work, dealing with rain, a cold wind in my face, and the usual craziness of crossing intersections, and something felt wrong with my left foot. Not painful wrong, just off. Unfortunately, it was almost another mile before I could stop somewhere that had a place I could sit down sort of out of the elements but still have some light.

I took off the shoe (one of those boots that are sort of a hybrid between high top athletic shoes and full-fledged work boots) and checked my foot, the insole and so on. Nothing seemed obviously wrong, so I put the shoe back on, making extra effort to re-tie both shoes extra snug, and finished the walk home. Once there when I pulled off the shoes in better light, I cold see the spot on the outer left side where the upper was separated from the sole. “Guess I need a new pair of shoes,” I said. As I set the shoes aside, I found a hole on the other shoe’s upper, at a different location, but around on the side where it hadn’t been easy to see. “Okay, seriously overdue for new shoes.”

The next morning while I was getting ready for work, I grabbed my pair of low-top tennies, which I normally never wear to the office except sometimes on a casual day. As I was tying the shoe, I realised that the spot on the middle on one top that was a brighter white than the beige of the rest of the shoe was actually a hole letting my sock show through.

When I mentioned this to my husband, he mentioned that both his main work shoes and his backup pair were in a similar state. Which is why we wound up driving to a big sporting goods store Friday night before going out to dinner.

And now we both have new shoes. Which means we both have new-shoe soreness. I even got a blister, yesterday! Joy! At least until I break them in (or they break me in, depending on how you see that debate).

This is the first time in a while that I replaced both my main pair of work shoes and my “casual” shoes at the same time. When I replace only one pair, I can at least give my feet a break every couple of days by wearing an already broken-in pair. Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown the others away so soon, eh?

Except we know that when I don’t throw out old shoes right away, they never get thrown out. And soon a major chunk of the closet has been taken over by old shoes. That’s not good.

It is a bit disturbing how much we can ignore. Yes, the wearing out of shoes is a gradual process, so on one hand it shouldn’t surprise us that we don’t notice how decripit a shoe is getting until something big fails, but then I look around at other the pile of “books to read next” or “things to sort through” that have gotten larger than I realize and I wonder how could I not notice?

I think I need to block out a few weekends to do some de-junking before we turn into an episode of Hoarders…

Not according to the script

One of the best times I ever had as a panelist at a sci fi con was a few years ago at Foolscap when I was sitting between Peter David and Jay Lake discussing Archetypes and Stock Characters (Quick side note: one of the things I love about the sci fi con community in general and Foolscap in particular is that extremely small-time writers like myself get to work with award-winning authors like Peter and Jay).

I had been on panels with Jay before. He was great at pulling the audience into the conversation. He always seemed to know obscure but interesting information about the topic at hand. And he always made you laugh.

I had seen Peter on panels. His enthusiasm and insanely fast wit were invigorating.

Being on a panel with both of them? It was as if one moment I was attending my favorite relaxicon, then I blinked and found myself waterskiing in the middle of the ocean, except it wasn’t a boat pulling me, it was a pair of fighter jets.

Fortunately it was a topic I was passionate about, so I jumped in and tried to keep up. And as I said, it was one of my favorite hours ever at a con.

Unfortunately, currently, both Peter and Jay are struggling against serious medical conditions.

Jay has been fighting cancer for nearly five years. He’s survived multiple surgeries and is undergoing his fourth round of chemotherapy. Doctors have nearly exhausted all conventional treatment options, and now Jay’s only hope of living long enough to see his daughter graduate from high school is an experimental one. Click here for details about the experimental procedure. You may also donate to help with Jay’s medical treatment at that page.

Peter suffered a stroke in December while on vacation with his family. While he has medical insurance, there are always co-pays and other uncovered expenses. His family is not asking for donations, but rather suggest that people who want to help can purchase some of his (very reasonably priced) ebooks. Read this post for more information on how to help.

Happy endings are never guaranteed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for them.


“Bring your coat; it’s cold out!”

I was reminded recently of the last time I visited Arizona. It was 1982. I was attending college1 in southwest Washington. My mom, who had remarried a couple years before, was living in Phoenix with my stepdad and the older of my sisters2.

My sister was getting married3 on Christmas Eve, so I came to visit for Christmas break to attend the wedding and have Christmas with Mom.

Every time we left the house, Mom would urge me to bring my coat. And everywhere I went, I wound up carrying my coat draped over one arm. I regretted not packing several pairs of shorts. The temperature, as I recall, never dropped below the low 60s (Farenheit)4. My Mom and Step-dad weren’t the only people wearing coats at the restaurants, movie theaters, and so on. I was sweating, but surrounded by an entire city of people practically shivering from the “cold.”

December in Phoenix, at least that year, was like June in Seattle.

On the other hand, I start complaining about the heat when the temperature gets up into the high 70s—and whining by the upper 80s—which makes friends who live in Phoenix (and Texas, southern California, Florida, et cetera) laugh5. Since for only two or three weeks in August or July does Seattle temperatures get into what most people would classify as summer-ish, my tolerance for heat is nearly non-existent.

Mom’s acclimation to Phoenix winter was particularly amusing to me, because during my childhood we lived in much, much colder places. During my junior high years, for instance, one of my morning chores during winter months was to carry an extension cord out to the driveway and plug-in the engine block heater for Mom’s car. It was actually two heaters: one built into the oil pan, the other into the coolant system. It warmed up the engine block enough to make the car start easily in the cold. On those mornings where the thermometer out on our front porch showed the temperature was colder that -10°F (-23°C), I had to string the second extension cord out to plug in the engine block heater for Dad’s pickup.

It got cold enough to justify the second extension cord at least a couple dozen times each winter.

Some years ago when on Christmas Eve I called my grandmother who still lives in that small Colorado town, she told me it hadn’t been a terribly cold Christmas thus far. “We only got to 25-below6 once or twice this week!”7

And one of my cousins who was there chimed in that the windchill factor was only “minus fifteen.”

Mom lived in that part of the country for a good 18 years, yet only a year or so in Phoenix was all it took for her to start thinking that what I considered early summer weather required a coat. Not a jacket, but a coat!

People are adaptable. We get used to the environment we’re in (physical, emotional, or cultural), adjusting our comfort levels without concious thought. Adaptability is a good thing. It doesn’t hurt, every now and then, to try to step outside yourself and look at what you’ve learned to accept as normal. In the abstract, are those really good things? Is this really where you want to be? Are you really who you want to be?

Similarly, are the people you disagree with just looking at things from a different perspective? Just because I think it’s madness to wear a coat when the temperature is in the upper 60s doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Not in the way they would be if they were huddled under an umbrella complaining about getting wet when the sun is shining and the precipitation is zero.

It’s important to distinguish between the way a person reacts to facts and the facts themselves.

1. During the long stretch of attending part-time, while living with my grandparents and working several jobs.

2. Our younger half-sister was living with my dad and stepmother back in Utah.

3. Which is a story so convoluted that if I used it in the plot of a novel, critics would universally pan the book as being totally unbelievable.

4. I have been known to be out and about wearing shorts when the temperature is 50°F (10°C)—and sometimes colder.

5. Of course, the last time I was in Texas in the summer, I noticed how many people spent those hot, muggy months inside their homes air-conditioned down to the lower 70s, riding in air-conditioned cars to sit in restaurants or churches air-conditioned down to the upper 60s, so I’m not sure they have as much to laugh about as they think.

6. That’s -25°F, or -30°C.

7. Just today my half-sister, who lives nearby, commented that the high temperature this week had been 6°, or -14°C.

Just in (unseasonal) time

I realized this weekend that the wall calendar is soon to go the way of the phone book.

In previous years, while I was out Christmas shopping, I was constantly coming across racks of wall calendars for the following year. There would be scores of different calendar designs at some places. And most years I would see one that leapt off the shelf at me, “Oh, I have to give this one to Michael!”

Some years we each gave the other multiple wall calendars. Which was fine. We need them in multiple locations in the house. At a minimum, one upstairs and one down. And I have always had one at work. At work I also always have a year-at-glance style calendar. While the latter technically makes the former redundant, I use them for slightly different ways of thinking.

Plus, I like having some interesting art or a photograph to look at that changes every now and then.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still wall calendars for sale in stores. But this year I noticed that the displays were far smaller and less varied. It’s always been the case that the variety of cute kitten or puppy calendars outnumbered everything else, combined. And lame landscape photo collections came in a close third.

But this year, those were the only ones I ever found!

So I didn’t buy any before Christmas. And when I realized that the only 2013 wall calendar either of us had was the Brony calendar several of our friends did art for, I went looking specifically for a good downstairs calendar for the house and one for my cube at work.

It’s not just that there wasn’t ones that appealed to me–a lot of places that I could previously count on to be selling slightly discounted calendars for a couple months after New Years didn’t have any calendars in stock at all.

I did see a couple at the FedEx store, of all places, that would have been acceptable. I probably should have grabbed them, but that would have meant getting in the checkout line after we’d finished our shipping business, and we were on a schedule.

And it’s also true that I far more often consult the calendar app on my phone (which automatically synchronizes with my calendar app on my laptop), so I don’t really need a hard copy calendar hanging on the wall. It is slightly convenient having the hard copy, but it has more to do with habit than need.

I don’t think that demand is going down nearly as fast as the practical obsolescence of the phone book. I suspect the lack of selection in brick and mortar stores is as much to do with online shopping as more and more of us using calendar apps. The wall calendars that physical stores will carry are going to fall into the categories of things that people will buy on impulse or out of desperation because they don’t know what else to buy Aunt Martha.

It only took me two minutes online to find a couple of calendars I liked and order them. So I’m contributing to that part of the process.

Not that it’s a bad thing. I just need to learn some new habits.

And we all know how easy and fun that always is, right?


As deep as a raindrop

I’m a news junkie.

Back when every town had at least one newspaper, I used to love sitting in the library reading the daily papers of two or three or even four different cities. I could go on and on about the relative merits of Newsweek vs Time magazine. And then once I became an NPR regular listener, I started to really drive my friends crazy.

As news organizations began opening sites on the web, I thought we might be entering a golden age of information. I was so naive… It’s true that now there are thousands of news portals available on the web, the vast majority of them free. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for.

Gathering news, and putting it into a form that is both informative and interesting takes time. I only free-lanced as a journalist for a while, but because my college career included several years as a part-time student, I had a bit more than four years experience working on college newspapers. My experience taught me a few things:

  • Trying to gather all the relevant information, understand it, condense it into a few hundred words, then re-write it when the editor tells you it’s too long, and by the way, your deadline was an hour ago, is exhausting,
  • No one who has never done that ever believes it is that hard, and
  • No one who has never done it ever believes you did it correctly.

It is hard work. It’s impossible to track down every detail, particularly when writing to deadline. And when trying to keep it within a reasonable size, it’s impossible to include all of the details you have tracked down. If you’re an ethical journalist (or at least trying to be one), the harder you try to be impartial just guarantees that more people will accuse you of bias or inaccuracy.

And because people expect the information to be free, very few sites are able to pay anyone enough to justify the work. Most of them are able to generate a small revenue stream thanks to advertising, but that won’t support enough writers with enough time to write much. So most news sites depend heavily on the ability to link to or crib from other sites. Often what little writing does get done for a site is under an agreement that lets the person sell the same story to other sites.

Superficially, this seems similar to the old print days, when competing publications would carry very similar stories about the “big news” events. But there is a difference.

And don’t get me started on the too-long-didn’t-read people.

This profound lack of depth becomes especially noticeable at certain times of the year, such as during the Christmas and New Year holidays when so many people are on vacation, that even the year-in-review slideshows start looking interesting.

This is one reason that I hope Andrew Sullivan’s experiment with a subscription model can begin to pay off. Pay walls haven’t been terribly successful so far, I know. On the other hand, two of my favorite new “shows” of the last year were crowd-funded web series.

I hope someone figures out something. Because I would love to have some reliable places to get news stories with just a bit of depth in them before I go crazy.

My New Year’s Wish

The changing of the year from one calendar to the next is often a time to set goals. I may do that more concretely before the week is out, but first I want to make a New Year’s wish. This wish is for everyone, especially me:

Remember to be a lantern, not just a mirror. If your life is filled with light, share it. But even if it is not, never forget that we always have the power to lighten someone’s life, at least a little bit, and sometimes that little bit is more significant than we can imagine.