Tag Archive | personal

When the lightning burns, the wolfsbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright – or, more of why I love sf/f

I have been trying to write a review of the sixth book in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and realized that I couldn’t really talk about it without talking about the rest of the series, and I had somehow neglected to write about the previous book when I read it last year, so I need to talk about it before I jump into the latest. So, this will be a review of the fifth book. For reference, I wrote about the first three novellas in this series here. And then I wrote about the fourth book (which left me sobbing uncontrollably), here.

I should preface this with this statement: before I read the first book in this series I was predisposed to love them, as the author had explained on a panel at a sci fi convention I attended, that the inspiration for the first story was her own reading of tales (when she was a child herself) in which a child or group of children were transported to a magical world where they faced danger, monsters, and adventure but managed to save that world… and then were forced to go back home and just be ordinary kids again!

And I definitely loved the first book in the series, as well as the next several sequels.

The fourth book, In An Absent Dream was—for me—the most devastating, but the first three had been pretty moving.

When the first teasers for the fifth book came out, I must admit I had mixed feelings. The first book had introduced us to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a refuge for those children who were not happy to be sent back to mundania after having slipped through the shadows into another world. Among the children we met in the first book were the twin sisters Jack and Jill, who had been to a world of horrors. And they had turned out to be central to the mystery of the first book. The second book in the series is a prequel to the first, and tells the story of how Jack and Jill (or Jacqueline and Jillian as they were known by their parents) went to that world, had their adventure, and come home.

It was clear from both the announced title of the fifth book and its official summary that we were going to be treated to yet another adventure involving Jack and Jill. And while I had enjoyed the first and second book in the series, there had been a whole lot of other characters introduced in the first and third books whose stories I really wanted to learn more of. So giving yet one more book to Jack and Jill, who had already had two books, seemed like it was giving the shaft to some of the other characters.

On the other hand, the magical world that Jack and Jill had traveled to, known as The Moors, was based on the old Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. And I loved those particular movies, which had contributed quite a bit to how much I had loved the second book in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. So I wasn’t really complaining about getting to spend more time there.

McGuire has explained several times that the series is set up thusly: odd-numbered books will be set at the school and involve groups of children who have already had at least one magical adventure on their own working together to solve a problem, while even-numbered books will be straight up Portal Fantasies where we see one or more children going to one of the magical worlds for the first time, and how that transforms them.

So. Come Tumbling Down begins with Jack unexpectedly coming back to Eleanor West’s school after taking her deranged sister back to the Moors and needing help. Several characters accompany Jack and her resurrected girlfriend, Alexis, back to the Moors to try to stop Jill from doing something truly horrible that will (among other things) cause great harm to her sister, Jack. Not to mention cause a lot of other bad things to happen to the mostly innocent bystanders trying to live their lives on The Moors.

It is clear right away that something is very wrong. Jack and Alexis explain the situation, and beg some of the students of Eleanor West’s school to come back with them to The Moors to stop Jill’s evil plan, because Jack can’t do it without them. A couple of the other wayward children we met in earlier books, as well as at least one we haven’t seen before this book answer Jack’s call and go back with her to the Moors.

We get to see aspects of this world that weren’t covered in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is cool. But as the rest of the quest unfolded I had a bit of a problem. Most of the characters that Jack persuaded to come back weren’t actually needed to complete the quest. Honestly, exactly one, and only that one and only for one specific task of the characters that Jack begged to come back with her did anything that actually contributed to solving the problem. All of the other actions that contributed to the solution were performed by Jack on her own. So most of the characters (including one who paid a very significant price) were not needed after all. Their only purpose in the plot was to get hurt (or worse) to create some tension, and not actually to contribute to the final solution.

It can be argued that Jack didn’t know that when she pled her case early in the book… but the author should have known that, and should have structured the story somewhat differently.

Mind you, I enjoyed the quest, its solution, and the new things we learned about the Moors. I just think the author dropped the ball at a couple of points in the plot, is what I’m saying.

However, the over all story—most importantly the explicit revelation that what some people call a monster can actually be the hero of the tale—was very entertaining and quite good. So like every other story I’ve read by this author, by the end despite some things not going the way I thought, I was still left mostly happy with that tale and looking forward to the next story in the series.

But it didn’t feel either as tight nor as poignant as the fourth book. And maybe I should just accept that sometimes an author hits their stride on every single aspect of a book in an incredible way, and other times they only hit it on say three out of five major components.

I mean, I liked the book. I went back to reread it and enjoyed it the second time. And as soon as I knew their was another book in the series coming out I preordered it. Which means, I guess, that I’m saying some of the books in this series are Incredible and Stupendous, and others are merely Really Good.

And that’s okay.

Coffee vs reality – and silly habits

“May your coffee kick in before reality does.”

“May your coffee kick in before reality does.”

Way, way, way back before my first husband died in 1997, every holiday season we would pick up some bags of Holiday Blend coffee beans. It so happened that my late-husband didn’t like Starbucks’ Christmas Blend, so that wasn’t one of the blends we would pick up each year. He died in November of ’97, a couple weeks before what I usually think of as the beginning of the holiday season, so I felt a particularly irrational need to make sure I picked up his two favorite blends… which meant that I was on the lookout for the holiday coffees. And I wound up, I believe, with his two favorites plus Starbucks and one other that I hadn’t heard of before. And thus began my new tradition of picking up as many Holiday/Christmas Blend coffees as I could each year—which I have blogged about many times before.

As of this morning, these are the blends I have completely finished off…

I’ve long resigned myself to the fact that there are so many of these blends available that I will be drinking Christmas Blend coffee well into February. One reason being that I am the only coffee drinker in the household. Michael, unlike my first husband, doesn’t like coffee. At all. Which I usually think of as simply meaning more for me, but it does mean that this particular tradition is mostly just a me thing.

These are the blends I have yet to finish off.

I have been picking up Starbucks Thanksgiving Blend as part of this for a few years. I usually start drinking the Thanksgiving Blend some number of days before Thanksgiving, and usually finish it off fairly early in December. Since U.S. Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November, sometimes that means there as many as 8 days of November before December starts. So I’m used to finishing off the Thanksgiving blend by early December at the latest. Therefore I was feeling a little weird when I realized I was almost two weeks into December and hadn’t quite finished off the Thanksgiving Blend. Part of that issue was that there were only four days of November left after Thanksgiving. But also, in the last year I’ve gotten into the habit of not making coffee on Sundays. I make a pot or two of tea and use the opportunity of not making coffee for a day to run the carafe and other parts of the coffee maker through the dishwasher.

I was also feeling as if the coffee wasn’t tasting right. With the current pandemic, any times things don’t taste as you expect there is a fear that you’ve caught the virus, but it wasn’t all food—just coffee. I finally remembered that last summer the coffee was tasting too strong, so I had turned the dial on my fancy grinder that determines how much coffee is ground up on a single push of the button a few notches. Which means I was using few beans per pot. But it had tasted right then.

There are (marketing) studies out there that people want stronger, darker coffee during cold weather than during warm weather. Which is why many of the coffee roasting companies use darker roasts in their holiday blends, for instance. But that doesn’t effect the strength of the coffee. So I turned the dial up a couple of notches for the next pot of coffee. It was better, but still not right. Then I turned it up a few more notches, and I’ve been liking how the coffee tastes since.

If it takes me two more months to finish off all the Holiday Blends, I guess I’ll just have to live with it!

Another stable orbit around our star… and my New Year’s wish for you

“Happy New Year”

“Happy New Year”

“Whew! Another stable orbit around our star! Happy New Year!”

“Whew! Another stable orbit around our star! Happy New Year!”

For many years now my final post of the year has been my New Year’s Wish for everyone who reads it and/or anyone who needs it. And I never know what it is going to be until I sit down to write it. This year is one of the most difficult ones to think about, because as I said in my previous post, not everyone made it through the year. Thinking about that brings tears to my eyes and also makes me really angry. And my new year’s wishes have always before been in one way or another about hope and empowerment.

“It's OK if all you did this year was just SURVIVE.”

“It’s OK if all you did this year was just SURVIVE.”

When I say that thinking of all the people who have died needlessly this year it brings tears to my eyes, well, sometimes that all that happens. But I’ve found myself frequently not just tearing up, but breaking down into full sobbing. And as one of my best friends once observed, it is really hard to feel empowered when you are crying your eyes out. Then I found the image/meme on the right. “It’s OK if all you did this year was just SURVIVE.” I think I need to embrace that notion.

Alvin McEwen opined this week that it’s okay to feel exhausted by the year, and that it’s okay to be angry—because despite being exhausted we aren’t totally beaten down, and our anger is righteous anger. (If, by the way, you don’t follow Alvin’s blog, Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters you should check it out! He’s doing good work there.) He’s right. It’s okay if all we’ve done is survive. Because the first step in fighting back against the darkness is to be here, ready to fight.

And as I finished that sentence, I finally figured out what this year’s wish is:

Be hope.

Don’t look to others for hope. Be hope.

There have been times when other people gave you hope. Now it’s time to pay it forward. Be hope.

You can be the hope that changes the world. Show up. Remember that exhaustion, and be kind when necessary. Harness that righteous anger, and be resolute and unyielding when it is called for.

Be hope.

Even when you are afraid, be hope.

“Happy New Year 2021”

“Happy New Year 2021”

The Eighth Day of Christmas Vacation: Time, Place, and Transitions

“At this point, I wouldn't even be surprised if the dinosaurs returned.”

“At this point, I wouldn’t even be surprised if the dinosaurs returned.”

Ever since this slow-motion apocalypse started, many of us have commented about how time seems out of whack. Folks will talk about not remembering what day it is, for instance. One friend observed that it simultaneously felt as if time were flying by (“How can it be December already?”) while at the same time dragging (“Every week seems to be thirty or more days long!”). Recently I found myself contemplating one simply, personal paradox about this. Every morning there comes a point where I roll over, squint at the alarm clock, and decided whether I have time to doze back off. Part of that process involves one part of my brain asking itself: “What day is it?” And then getting an answer, which has almost always been correct. “Oh, it’s Wednesday? We have to call in to the 8:30 meeting, the 9:00, and the 9:30, then if that doesn’t run over, an hour to get undivided attention work done before the 11… so I better get up and get all my meds done now.”

I’ve had a variant of that conversation with myself on about 128 work days since going into quarantine, and virtually every time I correctly knew what day it was when I was barely awake. Yet, at later moments in each of those days, I would feel a confusion about what day it was. Which seems like a contradiction. But human minds are messy things. Our consciousness is processed in or through our brains, but those brains are not neatly and precisely designed microchips, with an organic melange of neurons and neurochemicals intimately entwined with our endocrine system and all the other messy imprecise organs and organelles evolved for various purposes that may not always be apparent.

When I said that my waking up process involves one part of my brain asking itself, I wasn’t merely speaking metaphorically. There really are multiple systems involves in making up this notion we have of our mind, and they don’t all function the same way. There is clearly a logical, verbal part of my mind that can respond to that question of what day it is by checking memory and finding out that yesterday was Wednesday, therefore today much by Thursday. But other parts of the system use different criteria and inputs to perceive and understand the world. It’s those systems that become confused with our personal routines are disrupted.

I’ve started quarantine on February 17, before our state had it’s first stay at home orders because I woke up with a persistent cough. I didn’t think it would be a big deal once the actual orders came out, because I had worked from one two-days each week for a few years at that point (and any time I got sick but was well enough to work, I’d work from home for longer stretches). My husband still works outside the home, getting up each morning at a godawful hour to commute in, yet he also has these moments of confusion about the day… because the routines around work have also changed.

I don’t feel free to just pop off to the store anytime I want an ingredient that we don’t have for a particular recipe. I should limit the number of times I go out and get exposed to other people, right? And if I am going out, I have to make sure I have my mask, have washed my hands, and have a plan on what I’m picking up so that I minimize the time I’m inside any buildings other than home. While there I have to pay attention to how close I’m standing or walking past someone. And that doesn’t even get into keeping a wary eye out for the fuckwits who refused to wear a mask or have it pulled down so their nose is hanging out, et cetera.

So familiar stores are no longer the same kinds of place they were, because how I behave there, how others behave, and so forth has changed.

It’s strange little things that sometimes get to me. For instance, in the before times, I tended to handle one of my weekly chores (putting away the recently washed laundry) while listening to a particular conference call (with my mic muted) on work-from-home Tuesdays. Sometime during quarantine I just stopped doing it. I stopped having the automatic thought—after logging into the meeting, greeting the other early joiners, and then muting myself when enough people were there to start the business part—that now it is time to go deal with the laundry.

I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because every work day is a work-from-home day, therefore Tuesday doesn’t feel like Tuesday any more?

The way the pandemic is going, we’ve got a lot more of this to get through. And even when we do, the new normal isn’t going to be like the before times. We can’t predict what that new normal will be, exactly, but I know that some things are just not going back to the way we used to do them.

That is one of the reasons that, while I’m happy to see 2020 end, I don’t feel much like celebrating the arrival of 2021. I’m not going to be cheering, “We did it! We made it through that hellish year!” Which gets to the second reason I’m not feeling the celebration: not all of us made it. At least 333,000 Americans didn’t survive 2020—and a whole lot of them ought to have, and could have, if certain someone’s hadn’t made the politically calculated decision to abandon plans for testing and contact tracing and so forth.

So I’m flipping a page on the calendar, happy to kick that year out the door, but having a bit of trouble working up a lot of enthusiastic hope that next year is going to be significantly better.

We need a Rainbow Christmas—especially in quarantine

“Merry Christmas! Shabbat shalom! Blessed Yul! Joyous Kwanza! Festive Festivus! Happy Christmas! Happy Hogswatch! Feliz Navidad! God Jul! Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou! Beannachtaí na Nollag! Buon Natale! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus un laimīgu Jauno gadu! Felix Dies Nativitatus!”

“Merry Christmas! Shabbat shalom! Blessed Yul! Joyous Kwanza! Festive Festivus! Happy Christmas! Happy Hogswatch! Feliz Navidad! God Jul! Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou! Beannachtaí na Nollag! Buon Natale! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus un laimīgu Jauno gadu! Felix Dies Nativitatus!”

Rainbow Xmas 2020
(To the tune of ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ from the musical. Mame)

Slice the pecan pie,
And don’t be stingy with the homemade whipping cream,
Crank up the music,
I’m gonna sing and laugh to drive the darkness away!

‘Cause we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
Egg nog by the fire,
With rum and brandy in it!

Yes we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
My lyrics may be getting slurry,
But Santa dear, we’re in a hurry!

So fling ’round the glitter!
Put up more twinkling lights than the whole Vegas strip!
No need for fruitcake,
I’ve got a great big platter of deliciousness, here!

Cause we’ve grown a little rounder,
Grown a little bolder,
Grown a little prouder,
Grown a little wiser,

And we need some loving kindness,
Even over FaceTime,
We need a rainbow Christmas now!

Fill every wine glass,
Then raise a toast to full lives, and each other and
Join in the laughter,
Because our joy can push through masks and distance guides each day!

‘Cause we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
Cocktails in the morning,
With brandied cherries in them!

And I need a toasty lover,
Snuggling by the fire,
I need a rainbow Christmas now!

Yes we need a rainbow Christmas now!

Unintentional physics lessons, anniversary, and more

Earlier in the month we celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. Barely. By which I mean that it was the day before the anniversary that either of us remembered it was the anniversary1, so while I made a slightly fancier meal than usual for dinner that night2, it was something we had already planned to make at some point that week. We did manage each to have a gift to give each other, but even that had more than a bit of serendipity to it.

To tell this tale properly, I need to back up even earlier in the month. On the previous Saturday our usual gaming group gathered on line to play the next installment in our current game. We play on Saturday afternoons, chatting on Discord. And we take breaks throughout the day so every one can get fresh snacks, and/or refresh their drink, and/or take a bio break, right? And three of us in the group are into making cocktails, so frequently part way through the afternoon at one of those breaks I will assemble a cocktail instead of making another cup of tea, and we share photos of how the drinks come up.

So, I headed into the kitchen and I was already planning to make an Aviation with Empress 1908 gin3. I had run the dishwasher earlier that day, and my cocktail mixing pitcher was in the dishwasher, so I pulled it out, set it next the the bottles of booze, got a lemon and retrieved the lemon-squeezer from the drawer, right? And then I pulled a handful of ice from the freezer and dropped it into the mixing glass. I was cutting the lemon in half when I heard a distinct CLINK CLINK sound…

Enormous cracks was appearing all around my faux cut crystal cocktail mixing pitcher. I dumped out the ice and set the pitch in the sink, half expecting it to shatter any moment.

Here it is, upside down in the sink. You can see several cracks going across the bottom…

The pitcher had felt warm in my hand when I got it out of the dishwasher, but I hadn’t thought it was hot enough to have an adverse reaction the the ice. Oops4. I had to share a picture of the cracked glass with everyone. Even though it didn’t shatter, I figured that it’s likely to break anytime, now, and even if it doesn’t fall apart you might get tiny glass fragments in your drink. Clearly, it isn’t made out of tempered glass, and is not up to having ice dumped in it when it has been heated. Good to know.

Now, you don’t need the fancy cocktail pitcher to stir drinks in. I have a large glass shaker that can be used for stirring instead of shaking. You can also mix cocktails in a double-rocks glass, or a pint beer glass. So while it is sad to lose the pitcher, it’s something I can live without for a while. I went ahead and mixed my drink in another glass and strained it into the glass I intended to drink it from, and went back to the computer to tell the tale.

Because we’re in Gift Embargo7 Time, I went into my Amazon wishlist, found the pitcher (or one very much like it), and added it to my list. I can’t buy one for myself until January, but this way if someone was looking for something to buy me, and this was in their budget, I’d have one sooner, right?

I didn’t realize that Michael had, while I was telling the story, gone online and ordered me a new cocktail pitcher, in a gift bag, with the tag reading, “You need to open this early. Love, Michael.”

So it happened that the cocktail pitcher arrived in time for our anniversary. I had to duck out in the late afternoon on the day of the anniversary to pick up a present8 and some roses and an anniversary card. But it all worked out.

My second accidental physics lesson happened this week. Some years ago Michael gave me an aluminum seltzer bottle for a Valentine’s Day gift. So whenever I make drinks that require soda, I can make my own9. So I used up the last of the seltzer in the bottle the other night, and went to refill it to stick in the fridge so there would be cold seltzer whenever I needed it next.

Another present Michael got me for another Valentine’s Day is a cream whipper. So I can make my own whipped cream. Now the cream whipper uses little cartridges of nitrogen, and the seltzer bottle uses cartridges of CO2. You must not used CO2 with the whipper, because the carbon dioxide triggers a catalytic change in the heavy cream, causing the whipped cream the comes out to taste like very rotten milk. Not a good thing.

So I rinsed out the seltzer bottle, filled it with water, screwed the top on, put the cartridge in the chamber, and tightened it. The gas shot into the water, but the sound was… odd. pulled off the cartridge chamber to toss depleted cartridge into the recycle… when I noticed the cartridge was the wrong color. I had infused the water with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide.

I didn’t know if that was a bad thing, or not. I mean, since the nitrogen is safe in cream (and some other things you can put in the whipper), it ought to be okay, but I didn’t want to go research it right then. So I held the handle down and expelled all the water down the drain, unscrewed the seltzer bottle top assemble, made sure I had a CO2 cartridge this time, reassembled everything, put the cartridge in the chamber, screwed it down, and listened tot he carbon dioxide flood into the pitcher.

And when it did, the sound was wrong, but this time in a new way. As soon as I lifted the seltzer bottle I realized the new problem. I hadn’t filled it with tap water after emptying it of the nitrogen-infused water. So I laughed at myself, held down the handle and sprayed out the CO2, and unscrewed the top assembly.

There was a strange, white foamy/powdery substance on part of the mechanism under the top assembly that I didn’t recognize. When I tried to touch it, it just evaporated. That’s when I realized the top assembly was a lot colder in my hand than usual. So clearly the white substance was dry ice, which had formed inside the bottle while I was expelling the CO2. I since holding the top assembling was mildly painful from the cold, but didn’t actually burn my skin, I assume that I hadn’t gotten the interior of the bottle cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide13 under normal circumstances, but under the heightened pressure14 that had existed in the bottle temporarily had combined with the cooling effect of expelling first the nitrous-infused water and then the over pressured air16.

Eventually, I did get the proper combination of water and CO2 into the bottle and stuck it in the fridge.

Compared to other things going wrong in the world, this was more amusing that anything else.


Footnotes:

1. This isn’t the first time that the anniversary has snuck up on at least one of us. Part of the issue is that the date of our wedding wasn’t exactly of our own choosing. We held the ceremony on the first day that same sex couples were legally allowed to marry in our state. But I also blame the fact that the pandemic has turned time into a fog.

2. Beef stroganoff, which is something that I make almost once a month. It’s one of those recipes I can almost do in my sleep. It’s really good and it sounds complicated, and it is a little more work that what we often put into a work night dinner.

3. The Empress gin, instead of being a clear liquid like most gins, is a deep indigo color. And when you mix in citrus of any kind, the cocktail turns a really lovely shade of lavender. It makes for a very cool looking drink.

4. Part of the issue might be that I think I grabbed the glass with my right hand, and never touched it with my left hand. I have extensive nerve damage in the right hand because of an accident when I was a teen-ager. One of the things I can’t reliably feel with that hand is heat5.

5. Yes, I had sometimes grabbed hot dishes without potholder, and the reflexes of my left hand immediately drops it, while my right will hold on and make a nice sizzling noise.

6. I should explain the physics lesson: when an object is heated, not matter what it is made out of, it expands (physically gets bigger). When it cools, it contracts (gets smaller). Glass object does not have a high internal thermal conductivity. Normally we like this, because acts as at least a bit of an insulator between our hands and the food/drink contained inside. However, in the case of a glass object—such as a cocktail mixing glass, becoming heated because of the hot water in the dishwasher, and then staying heated because of the heating coil the helps dry off the dishes after the wash cycle is complete—and then being cooled rapidly by either the addition of cool water or cold ice, the surface exposed to the cold object contracts faster then the interior molecules of glass, causing stress. Glass is hard, but it is also brittle. That means it isn’t flexible to deal with that stress, and so instead it cracks.

7. Some years ago my husband had to scold me for buying myself some DVDs and books not long before Christmas. And of course, it turned out one of our friends had bought me one of the things I bought myself, and handed me the pretty wrapped package at the Christmas party that year. Anyway, the rule now is that started a few weeks before my birthday, through Christmas, I’m only allowed to buy myself things like food, certain types of clothing, and medicine.

8. I got him a wok. We used to have an enormous wok, and Michael used it for cooking all kinds of things, not just stir fry. But it was more useful back when we were regularly hosting at least two group get-togethers every month, but he was reluctant to use the big thing when it was just the two of us. So when we were getting rid of things we seldom use prepping to move a few years ago, the wok was donated, and Michael said we could get a smaller one if we decided we needed it.

9. So, rather than having to keep bottles of tonic in stock in order to make gin & tonics, I can keep a bottle of tonic syrup and then use the seltzer bottle to turn a small amount of syrup into a large amount of tonic. Then there are Aperol Spritzes, Whiskey and Sodas, or Rock n Rye and Sodas10 and so forth.

10. I still need to do a post about how I started making homemade Rock n Rye to open at our Christmas Party every year, and then the drinks I have invented that use the leftover Rock n Rye11 when I don’t feel like straight shots.

11. It’s kind of fun, and you never know exactly how it’s going to taste until it is done.

12. At this point, I should probably have decided that just before bedtime after having two Rock n Rye and
Sodas might not be the best time to accomplish anything but super simple tasks, but…

13. Which is -109 degrees Fahrenheit or -78 degrees Celsius.

14. Higher air pressure lowers the freezing point of any substance15.

15. Well, if I am to be pedantic, the temperatures we humans usually list as freezing and boiling points of various substances assumes exactly one atmosphere of pressure. So if the air pressure is either lower or higher than one atmosphere, then the freezing and boiling points change.

16. When a gas expands, it cools off, this is why, for instance, either the nitrous or CO2 cartridges turn very cold after as you empty them.

A proper Christmas… however you define it

My husband pointed me to a twitter thread by a Muslim American who has never celebrated Christmas, before, who is letting his Quarantine Roommates teach him how to have his first proper Christmas. It’s a funny and relatively short thread that has some good commentary on the way Americans tend to observe Christmas. I like his first characterization of Christmas as being a part-time job from mid-November to the end of December. I’ll link to the thread at the end of this post.

A proper Christmas means different things to different people, and I think that’s a good thing. I remember a few years ago when I was discussing this topic with a couple of friends, that one explained that what she liked about Christmas was that she could put up pretty lights and ornaments. The other friend interjected that what he liked about it was that you get to decide what “pretty” is, and if other people comment unfavorably on whatever outlandish or silly decorations, you could just gasp and claim that this is how your family always did it, and the person was socially obligated to accept that that was your tradition (whether it actually had been a family tradition or not).

It got me thinking about what sort of informal family traditions my family had observed. Most were pretty mundane, and some were the result of other circumstances. Unless there was an overwhelming reason, we always spent Christmas morning at my paternal grandparents’ house. Sometimes Dad’s sister’s family was there, too. Because Dad’s oil field job was nomadic, how far we had to drive to get there varied most years. If we got to the town where my grandparents lived early enough on Christmas Eve, we’d get to go visit my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents this evening. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see them until after Christmas dinner1.

By the time my great-grandparents died, my maternal grandmother was living 1200 miles away. But then my parents divorced and Mom, my sister2, and I relocated to the same part of southwest Washington, where I found out that grandma hosted a Christmas Eve open house every year, attended by relatives, in-laws, old family friends, and others. So for the next many years one of the traditions became you’d see all the extended family on Christmas Eve3, then Christmas morning would be each individual family opening presents together.

All the Christmas trees put up by my extended family were a bit chaotic. Everyone seemed to have some special ornaments that had been passed down from earlier generations, as well as an eclectic collection of glass balls and the like. The trees would thus have a whole lot of different colors, and since any kids in the home had done part of the decorating, there often wasn’t any sort of design involved in the placement of the ornaments, other than the star or angel4 always went on top.

I think I was nine when I saw my first non-chaotic tree in the home of someone I knew. I can close my eyes and still see it: a flocked white tree decorated with dozens of identical blue satin balls and blue satin ribbons, with a blue and silver angel on top. I was really shocked, and couldn’t imagine why someone would do that. A few years later another family I knew had a tree where the ornaments were red, green, and gold, and the mother of the family had very strict rules about which size of ornaments went how high on the tree6, and that the three colors had to be as evenly distributed as possible.

Of course, many years later Ray and I did trees all in a fairly simple color scheme… but even then there was a bit of chaos, because either of us could pick any “favorites” to go on the tree no matter what the color scheme was. Just as this year’s tree at our house has mostly purple and pink ornaments, but some of the traditional ones I put on every year7, and then just about anything I could justify as being gay.

I find that I am more concerned with food at Thanksgiving than at Christmas. I have certain favorite dishes that we always had at Thanksgiving when I was a kid that I crave on that day now, but Christmas food doesn’t get me quite the same way. I don’t know if that is because as a kid that the big part of Christmas was the presents and everything else was secondary, or if the family dinners were just more flexible at Christmas. I mean, as far as I remember, anything that was an accepted side dish at Thanksgiving could appear on the Christmas dinner, so you would think I’d always have a strong craving for some of those things.

Michael and I have had the tradition since our first Christmas that we make a nice dinner for Christmas Eve, as well as a big dinner for Christmas, and a nice dinner for New Year’s Eve. And we start planning the three together a few weeks before the holidays. But we don’t do the same things each year at those three events. Mostly. I mean, New Year’s Eve is often beef… unless we had decided to do steaks for Christmas Eve or something. At this point we’re a few days out from Christmas Eve/Christmas, and the plan is that we’ll pull either the ham, or the turkey breast, or the pork roast out of the freezer for those, and the small prime rib roast I found at a not entirely outrageous price we’re saving for New Year’s… maybe9.

When I started this blog post, I thought I would vamp for a little bit on some odd traditions, and then start talking about one very specific tradition I started about five years ago. But I see that the word count of this entry is getting up there, so maybe I should save that for later.

In the meantime, you should read the whole twitter thread if you haven’t yet.


Footnotes:

1. When I was very young, this just seemed to be the way things were. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 years old that I realized that Dad’s parents (specifically his mother) always got priority over everyone else, or else.

2. My half-brothers and half-sister remained with Dad and their mother, of course.

3. And you could use Grandma’s party as an opportunity to deliver gifts, but generally opening presents that night was frowned upon.

4. Almost everyone had either a star or an angel. I mostly only saw the spire or steeple style tree-toppers in stores or on neighbor’s trees. As an adult, for a while it was always either a star or one of the spires. Until we started getting more creative. This year, for instance, we have a flying fairy5.

5. It is most definitely not an angel.

6. Largest at the bottom of the tree, medium sized in the middle, small one near the top.

7. I have three small glass ball ornaments—one red, one pink, and one green—which belonged to my great-grandmother. I have three sets of crocheted bells that were made by my grandma. We have a pair of December Diamond Goom Mermen that were a present from a group of friends on the occasion of our legal wedding on the first day we legally could in our state—which happened to be in December. The two of them go on the tree side by side no matter what the theme is8.

8. This year they just happen to fit the Gay part of the theme.

9. I an totally blaming the pandemic on why we are less decided on the meals at this stage than usual10.

10. I mean, we’ve also got a beef brisket in the freezer, and we were talking about doing in on New Year’s… and then the prime rib could get shuffled to one of the other days11.

11. And I still need to run to the store before the holiday because I know we’re missing some ingredients for some of the side dishes we’ve discussed… and I might find something on sale that would completely change our minds on the other possibilities.

Playing catchup, virtual party, and counting down to Christmas

This year’s theme is The Big Gay Christmas Tree™️ (photo by my husband)

I haven’t been posting much all month. November’s semi-hiatus was planned, because I was doing NaNoWriMo1, so I was trying to put all of the time when I wasn’t working to writing for NaNo, rather than blogging. Once November was over I needed to shift gears to try to get the Christmas Ghost Story2 finished before the virtual Christmas Party, but I didn’t expect to almost completely stop blogging!

Part of the issue, I realize, is that things at work went super intense because we had an outlandish3 number of software releases scheduled to push out to customers before everyone goes into holiday hiatus, so I was working late several days of every week, and found myself so exhausted I needed to take naps a couple of nights each week.

I’ve been taking at least one vacation day every week since August because of some draconian changes in vacation policy. Which seems really nice until you realize that part of the draconian bit is that despite forcing most of the work force to take time off, the corporate overlords are insisting that none of the previously committed delivery dates can be adjusted. Which means that we’re still working just as many hours, but squeezing them into four work days a week instead of five.

And no, when you’re classified as a salaried and exempt employee that isn’t illegal, even though it ought to be4. Moving on.

Before the virtual party, my hubby arranged the presents before taking pictures to share.

I had Friday off, and I had worked very late two nights before that, but I managed to get up, moving, and out to do the shopping at a reasonable hour. I finished the Ghost Story in the wee small hours of Saturday morning6, as I almost always do. I always end up in a state where I’m spinning my wheels, ditching scenes and writing replacement scenes no matter how early I start the story.

I got the story finished and practiced and we were both in a good, rested headspace when it was time to log into the virtual party and start being social. I did not finish the story in time where I could both practice reading it aloud a few times and record the performance in advance to upload to either my Patreon or Youtube channel as I hoped7. I may still try to do that. We’ll see9.

Besides not getting to see people in person, another thing that was a bit disappointing about the virtual Christmas party is we didn’t have the usual gift exchange. A couple of people were willing to open presents on camera because they had received presents from some of the people on line, but it’s not the same. I could have, obviously, decided to open any number of the presents that I’ve received. But the truth is that my favorite part isn’t opening presents myself10, it’s seeing other people open presents and react to them. That’s where a lot of the laughter at the party occurs. And you get to thank the person who gave it to you right then. And you can hear the story about how the person who gave you the present found this thing and why they thought of you, when appropriate it.

So I wasn’t really chomping at the bit to open any of mine.

For the last few years Christmas day has been just Michael and I, whereas it used to be like that only on alternate years. We started this after barely getting through the first Thanksgiving after the Grifter-in-Chief was elected without punching certain relatives in the mouth12. It was a very unpleasant holiday, all right?

So for December 2016, ’17, ’18, and ’19 I have driven down to southwest Washington a few days before Christmas to drop off presents with my Mom, one of my aunts, my sister and her family, and my grown niece and her family. It’s always a day that I have off but my husband has to work13. Then we have a day or more to ourselves before the actual holiday plus Christmas Day itself.

I have to admit I kind of miss getting to do that trip this year. I like seeing everyone in person, and for whatever reason17 when we’re not down there on the actual holiday they talk a lot less about the various unpleasant topics. On the other hand, given the way the weather has been this week, which would normally be the time I’m most likely to take the trip, I’m just as happy not being on the freeway.

So I’ll just keep working from home for the next couple of days, enjoy gazing at our Big Gay Christmas Tree™, and keeping counting down until Santa arrives.


Footnotes:

1. I did make my word count goal, though I didn’t exceed the last few years’ word counts as I had managed to do a few years in a row until now.

2. The annual tradition I’ve followed since 1995 is that I write an original Christmas Ghost Story to read at the party, and challenge other folks to read something they’ve written—or otherwise perform something. We’re had people sing, play a musical instruments, all sorts of things.

3. It really is edging up into the impossible at this point…

4. It is amazing how many times when I have mentioned something like this online, how many randos feel obligated to chime in to say this sort of thing is illegal. It just reminds me how many people don’t work in the sorts of industries where everyone qualifies for the IRS’s definition of exempt employee and therefore assume that hourly working regulations apply5.

5. It’s particularly amazing at how many of them don’t understand that virtually every company that has managed to get most of its employees thus classified does these sorts of thing to exploit their employees.

6. Sort of. I mean, I reached an ending by about 3:30am and then promptly crashed for a few hours. After I woke up I kept thinking about it and didn’t like how I’d ended it. I mean the very ending, yes, but the way I’d written the story and the fairy tale tropes I was using had prompted me to write a long denouement that a short story typically has nowadays. So sometime shortly afternoon I deleted most of the denouement, replacing it with a single sentence, and then I was much happier.

7. I need to upload things to both far more often…8

8. Given my activity thus far this year, by “more often” I really mean “at all.”

9. I’m not sure how much appeal there would be to hearing a Christmas Ghost Story after Christmas, so if I don’t manage it in the next few days…

10. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy getting presents. That’s fun. And trying to guess what’s inside and then opening it is also a lot of fun. I particularly love those times when someone finds something I didn’t even know existed, but if I had known I would have put it on my own wishlist11. That’s just amazing.

11. In the realm of books and music, my friend Mark is incredibly good at this.

12. The cliche usually mentions the racist uncle—the problem goes deeper than that. The homophobic relatives who don’t believe they are homophobic, the relatives who repeat white supremacist talking points from Fox News without thinking, et cetera, et cetera. That’s part of the reason we instituted the old rule of we would visit them for one of the big holidays each year, then stay home for the other.

13. I always got asked several times why Michael wasn’t there. They accept that I get more paid time off than he does, but I keep expecting them to start accusing me of keeping him away from them or something14.

14. I’ve mentioned before that I strongly suspect a bunch of my extended family on that side like Michael more than they do me. Which I’m perfectly happy with, because I think he’s awesome, and given how many of the family perceived my late husband, Ray, as some sort of evil person who surely must had done something diabolical to me to turn me gay15, them all enthusiastically liking my husband is a decided improvement16.

15. I have been gay for as long as I can remember, I just didn’t have words for it when I was younger, and then because I feared all the homophobic people around me once I realized what was going on after puberty hit, I hid it from them.

16. One of his reasons for not accompanying me on these trips during those years is that he doesn’t want to use up one of his more limited number of vacation days for that purpose, but also because he winds up biting his tongue a whole lot more than I do when they start parroting Fox News.

17. There are two reasons I can think of. First, there’s something about having a bunch of people together for several hours on a holiday that seems to make some folks feel obligated to fill any moments of silence with something, and so they are just more likely to spout off as the day goes on. Second, since I tend to be dropping off stuff at each individual house, and they know I have other people to get to and so on, they think of it as a visit with me, rather than a general group get-together. So topics remain focused on the social visit and catching up on our personal lives, rather then discussing world events, the coming apocalypse18, and so on.

18. I’m not exaggerating, here. The kind of Bible-thumping evangelical fundamentalism my extended family adheres sees every single world event as either a direct attack by demonic forces, or a sign that Commando Jesus is going to descend from the heavens soon, kill all the unbelievers, and take the true believes back up to rule in heaven.

The magic slab of glass that contains all my friends… or not

A few years ago at a science fiction convention an author on one of the panels I attended described a modern smart phone as “the magic slab of glass that fits in my pocket and contains all of my friends,” which I thought was a really wonderful way to sum-up how that miniaturized computer which (among other things) obviates a telephone functions on a social level. Engineers and certain kinds of techies worry about the ins and outs of the physical technology, the software, and the networks that enable the functionality. But the sociological impact of that technology is something that most of the engineers who worked all those years to make it a reality didn’t foresee.

As a very early adopter of the internet (being a denizen of the old FidoNet to access UseNet groups back before the World Wide Web existed), in some ways I’ve lived in that space for a long time. Heck, since before those days I was involved in old school fanzines where everyone wrote physical letters that we sent to each other via the U.S. Postal Service to collaboratively create art and fiction, I have been used to the idea of friends who may be people I have never met in person for even longer.

So that description really resonated with me.

On the other hand, I have worked in the telecommunication software industry for about 33 years—during which time I have worked at everything from testing code and hardware, to coding, designing software systems, and writing both user documents, developer documents, help systems, and more—I have more than a bit of understanding as to what went in to creating the magic of the slab of glass that fits in your pocket.

For some of us, our smart phone/magic slab of glass is an integral part of every day. I thought I understood that before, but recently I have become even more acutely aware of how dependent I’ve become on my smart phone. Which requires a bit of explanation.

My employer has been migrating a lot of our tools (as well as our code and document repositories) to cloud services. More recently, they decided that for the most part we shouldn’t access company data with machines not owned by the company (which, frankly, defeats the point of putting things in the cloud, but…). So, for instance, a couple months ago they shipped me a company phone, and instructed me to move the three multi-factor authentication apps that I have to use to access various services off of my personal phone. This is more than a little ridiculous, because the authentication apps themselves don’t contain nor directly access company data. But, that’s their decision.

The phone they gave me is an iPhone XR, and it came with a matte black case. My personal phone is an iPhone 11. Even though my personal phone is purple and has a clear plastic case, when they are both asleep a sitting on the table or desk they look an awful lot alike. So, for instance, if I hear an sound that indicates a new direct message from one of my co-workers, about one-third of the time I grab my personal phone rather than the work phone. Which only wastes a few seconds, but it is still a little annoying.

More annoying is that if I walk away from my desk—whether to go the the bathroom, or get some more coffee from the kitchen, or maybe to take a break outside on the veranda—I grab my phone so I can catch up on Twitter and personal email and/or check the news. And, again, about a third of the time I pick up the company phone rather than mine, and don’t realize it until I’m all the way outside or in the other room.

That’s a bit more of an inconvenience.

And sometimes I don’t even notice immediately. I will flip through the home screen pages trying to figure out where my News app is, or Tweetbot, or why are their no email accounts at all in the Mail app (company email is all on Outlook, and I access it through the Outlook app rather than the built-in iOS Mail app).

I do not want to put my personal information on the company phone. As the company suggested, I created an Apple ID based on the corporate email address for use on the phone, so I can update that phone and download free apps (rather than just the ones available through the enterprise portal) if I decide I need them, and that’s find. But I don’t want to set it up as yet another device accessing my personal email and my twitter stream, et cetera.

I know it’s a first world problem, and even then, it is a fairly minor inconvenience. I get irritated and try to be more careful to really look at the phone as I reach for it. But human perception relies on extrapolation and guessing rather than actively processing every single nerve impulse that comes it. So our brain subconsciously makes quick assessments of things based on basic shape, size, and what we expect to see when we glance at something. There are reasons in makes sense that our brains evolved that way–in a dangerous situation you don’t want to waste critical moments resolving every detail within the field of vision.

But it means this issue is going to be a problem going forward one way or another. Like how I might grab the wrong keys while heading out to the car.

It just reminds me, every time it happens, how I’ve gotten used to being about to browse the world in this magic slab of glass in order to fill in some of the downtime of life.

So we’re supposed to give thanks, right?

To all my readers outside the U.S.: Happy Thursday!

My fellow Americans, if you celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you’re having a happy one. The point of this holiday is supposed to be to remember the things in our lives for which we are thankful. For most of my life I have been all over that idea, because I’ve had a pretty good life. Even though ever since puberty, when I first realized that I was gay, I have lived under one existential threat or another, I still could see the many good things and good people in my life. The last four years have represented a far worse series of threats to the life and well-being of everyone who isn’t part of the 1% and/or white, cis, male, straight, conservative, and well-off enough to stockpile assault weapons.

And while the recent election is ousting the wingnut-in-chief, I think it’s a little early to celebrate. Because the angry white nationalists and their allies have been feeling emboldened for the last few years, and now many of them think they’ve been cheated. So the single worst overt threat to the future of the Republic may have been technically beaten, but the war goes on.

Knowing what is hanging over us makes it so easy to get on the anxiety treadmill and just keep running in place.

Which isn’t what today is supposed to be about. For our mental health, it isn’t what we can spend all of our time on.

So, here are things I’m thankful for:

  • my smart, sweet, sexy, super capable, long-suffering husband
  • cocktails (it’s 2020 everywhere, drink when you want!)
  • sci fi books that tell of hopeful futures
  • coffee
  • people who help other people
  • recipe blogs
  • videos about haw to make cocktails
  • people who make art, music, and other creative things
  • the cute birds that visit my bird feeder every day
  • people who take care of us when we’re sick
  • music
  • purple
  • my eccentric, sometimes infuriating relatives who probably find me even more bewildering than I ever do them
  • not having to spend any holidays with (especially) the most infuriating relatives this year
  • audio and video conferencing services that let me spend time with friends despite quarantine
  • podcasts
  • gravy
  • people who work retail
  • music
  • rain
  • people who write fanfic
  • science
  • olives
  • people who love
  • my kind, clever, cheerful, hard-working husband (who definitely deserves to be on this list twice!)
  • online friends
  • cheese
  • playlists
  • pie
  • people who vote
  • radio and wireless technologies
  • people who fill the world with joy
  • kittens and puppies and tigers and otters
  • teddy bears and mousies
  • books
  • people who review and recommend books
  • stuffing
  • have I mentioned my handsome, good-natured, patient, shrewd, funny husband (who definitely deserves to be on this list three times!)?
  • friends who will group text with me while we’re all yelling at the same football game on the TV
  • gin
  • cherries
  • virtual events
  • the many almost magical computing devices that I can now wear on my wrist, carry in my pocket, and otherwise use to bring a wealth of information and possibilities that were barely imaginable when I was a kid
  • all my wonderful friends—who are talented, kind, giving, and clearly the most patient people in the world, because they put up with me

Thank you, each and every one. Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving today or not, I hope you have a wonderful day full of blessings, because you deserve it.

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