Tag Archive | Throwback Thursday

Playing Piano on a Star’s Surface and Other Impossible Things — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

In 1983 I was still attending a community college part time while working several part-time jobs, stuck in a weird financial situation too complicated and frankly boring to go into right now. The important points are that I was still very closeted and in a situation where I was dependent on conservative religious relatives and equally conservative institutions for my livelihood. I clung to science fiction and fantasy as a half-drowned person might clasp the last floating piece of wreckage after a boat disaster in the middle of the ocean. And while I couldn’t always afford to buy new sf/f books and anthologies when they came out, the local public library subscribed to three science fiction magazines, one of which was Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so a few times I month I would spend an afternoon at the library reading those magazines.

And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.

The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.

We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.

He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.

The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.

But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.

By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.

On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.

If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?

I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.

The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?

They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.

And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.

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Ken and Ben, twinks in love — or where did you think fashion came from?

Magic Earring Ken

One weekend way back in 1992, my late husband Ray and I were having brunch at the old Hamburger Mary’s in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I was reading the local snarky alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger when I read about Mattel’s latest edition to the Barbie toy line: Magic Earring Ken. He was being written about in the snarky paper because one of the many so-called Christian anti-gay organizations had sent out an alert to their supporters explaining how Mattel had released a Gay Ken, marketing it to children, and each doll came with a sex toy! They helpfully published a 1-800 number where people could call Mattel and tell them they were going to boycott the company. And apparently a lot of them did, prompting the company to issue a statement trying to explain that the Ken wasn’t gay and there certainly wasn’t a sex toy included.

The reason the wingnuts had gotten up in arms about Gay Ken was because a couple of weeks earlier, Sex Advice Columnist Dan Savage had mentioned in his column that he had seen this so-called Gay Ken. He noted that the clothes and hair style of the doll would not have looked out of place in the West Hollywood a couple of years previously, but wasn’t exactly super stylish any more, but that every gay man would recognize a piece of jewelry that came with the doll as something they usually only used while having sex.

Because Dan hadn’t said what the jewelry was, and then the wingnut pastor (who I’m sure was only following Dan’s column to keep tabs on a notorious queer—except this was 1992, and Dan wasn’t really famous or notorious, yet) had called it a sex toy, apparently a lot of his followers assumed that doll was being sold with a dildo or vibrator and they really confused the poor people answering the phones at Mattel, let me tell you.

Later that day, Ray and I scoured a few toy stores until we found Magic Earring Ken, and we bought two of them. Ray named them Ken and his boyfriend Ben. He decided they needed to be displayed like art, and got a couple of doll stands so they could stand atop a shelf we had in our living room in the teeny studio we were living in at the time.

I have seen people post on tumblr and other places a very wrong version of how the doll got designed. It had nothing to do with trying to make Ken look like someone at a rave. It had a much more innocent origin. The designer responsible was interviewed for several magazines after the incident. She was looking for new ideas for the next year’s Ken—because a survey the company had done asking girls whether Barbie should get a new boyfriend, had returned the results that girls wanted Barbie to stay with Ken, but that wanted Ken to be “cooler.” The designer, realizing one of her nieces was exactly in the age group that played with Barbies, took her niece and several of the nieces friends out for ice cream at a mall. And there, she asked the girls to point out all the boys who they thought were dressed “cool.” As people walked by, the girls would point out guys (usually older teens or college-age looking), and the designer took notes and made quick sketches of the clothes and hairstyles.

She was not aware that the chrome metal ring some of the young men were wearing on chains around their necks were cockrings. And truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the guys wearing them didn’t know, any more than a lot of the girls in the mid-eighties inspired by Madonna started wearing silicon cockrings as bracelets. And also, most of those guys probably weren’t gay. It’s often been the case that certain marginalized groups, including by not limited to queers, establish fashion trends that get copied subsequently by other folks.

Based on follow up conversations with some of girls and her notes, she designed a new look for Ken. And the next year (1992) it came out. It was selling as expected for at least a month before someone writing for another gay paper somewhere saw it, wrote a short humorous article calling the doll a Gay Twink. And Dan found out about it, and things were from there.

Contrary to what many of those other blog posts claim, there was also a Earring Magic Barbie and several other members of the Barbie line got an Earring make-over. But only Ken’s makeover looked gay. And as word spread about the Gay Ken, thousands of queer men like Ray and I ran out to buy them. Magic Earring Ken became the best selling model of Ken in the history of the Barbie line.

But, because of the controversy, Mattel decided to stop making or selling that model.

When I first saw this look in the box on the shelf at the toy store, I thought it looked more like late 80s California dude rather early 90s, but...

When I first saw this look in the box on the shelf at the toy store, I thought it looked more like late 80s California dude rather early 90s, but…

Our two dolls didn’t just stand around gathering dust. No, Ken and Ben became an ongoing art project for Ray. It started innocently enough, we both decided they shouldn’t always dress identically, so we picked up some other Ken outfits and started mixing an matching. Then Ray found more toy props, so he could pose them sitting at a table, drinking coffee. And of course more outfits. After we moved to a larger apartment, Ray bought Barbie’s dune buggy. Then the pink Barbie jeep. And a G.I. Joe. And another action figure (I don’t remember which cartoon show he was from, but he had a weird tattoo on his chest). And more outfits. And a Shaving Magic Ken. I found a Christmas tree that was just the right size for them to stand around at Christmas time. Ray found multiple sweaters, include two different designs of ugly Christmas sweaters that fit them.

Month after month, Ray would change the the clothes on all the dolls, and change out the props to fit with the season. In the summer they would all be in swimsuits or wet suits and have the dune buggy and surfboard, for instance. And every year the Christmas party scene would get a bit more elaborate.

Until Ray died.

The last setup he did was for Halloween. He’d found some things that could be cheesy costumes for some of the dolls, and a little jack o’lantern, and I think a little toy black cat that was the right size. On the night we were discussing Thanksgiving plans, he made a comment about changing Ken and Ben’ clothes and setting all the boys around one table like a Thanksgiving Dinner. Later that night, in the wee small hours, Ray had the seizure that led to the coma and ultimately his death.

I left Ken and Ben and the others in the Halloween set up for a few weeks. I wasn’t in a mood to change them (or really do anything for a few months, to be honest). I decided not to decorate from Christmas that year, until one evening I got hit by the irrational thought that Ray would be very disappointed with me if I didn’t put up at least something. So Ken and Ben and the others went into a box. I bought few Christmas things (because I knew if I tried to unpack any of our big collection of Christmas ornaments and such I would start crying and might not be able to stop) set them up on top of the entertainment center, which had been Ken and Ben’s stage for years.

I did eventually get Ken and Ben and the others out of the box, changed their clothes, and posed them in a not terribly interesting way. It had been Ray’s project, and while I loved helping him do it, it just wasn’t the same without him. After Michael and I got together, he would occasionally make suggestions to change the boys up a bit. But it still wasn’t the same. A couple years later, that entertainment center was getting wobbly. It had been a cheap particle board kit and was at least 8 years old. And while looking for a replacement (and making considerably more money than I had been 8 years prior), I found this enormous, beautiful, solid oak entertainment center that I just had to have.

It was so much taller than the old one, that I couldn’t really see Ken and Ben when they were up there, and changing their clothes and such required a small step ladder. So I packed up a lot of the accessories (the jeep, dune buggy, tables, chairs, et cetera) and most of the dolls, and took them to Goodwill. I kept Ken and Ben, though. I was thinking I should hang onto them if for no other reason, as a monument to a particularly weird and funny pop culture/queer culture collision.

I thought that Ken and Ben were still packed away somewhere in the computer room closet, but when we were packing to move out of that place last April, I didn’t find them in the box I thought they were in. I was a bit perturbed, but figured that at some point in the unpacking I would find them. But they weren’t in any of the boxes from other closets that hadn’t been opened for years. Nor were then in any of the boxes in the basement in a similar state.

I know what probably happened is that one of the times in the last ten years when I would make attempts to go through all of the Too Much Stuff™ that we had at the old place, that I decided to finally donate Ken and Ben to Goodwill or Value Village or the like. But I don’t remember doing it. So I’d rather believe that they got tired of being boxed up and forgotten. They staged an escape and ran off together—two twinks in love, looking for adventure.

Unnamed faces in old (and not-so-old) family pictures

One of dad's cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents' house.

One of dad’s cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents’ house.

A friend expressed a particular family dysfunction really well: inherited baggage. This is the phenomenon where, because of some issue one, two, or more generations back, there are relatives you know about, and maybe even hear about frequently, but you never really get to know them. Frequently you also are never told why is it that Great-uncle Glenn will never visit. Nor why, though we very frequently visited Great-grandma who literally lives next door to Great-uncle Glenn, yet we almost never stopped in at Great-uncle Glenn’s house.

That isn’t a made-up example.

Whenever we went to visit Great-grandma on her farm, we would also drive a couple miles down the road to the farm owned by Great-uncle Lawrence and see all of his family. To get to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house, we had to drive right past Great-uncle Glenn’s farm. While we were visiting, often Great-uncle Glenn’s wife, Dorothy, would come to either Great-grandma’s house or to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house to see us. But Great-uncle Glenn wouldn’t.

The picture above was a similar visit… Read More…

When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical

Me wearing part of the uniform for the interdenominational youth touring choir I was a member of for many years.

Me wearing part of the uniform for the interdenominational youth touring choir I was a member of for many years.

Just a few months ago I was trying to explain to a friend who lives in the U.K. the weird hypocritical dogma of the typical American fundamentalist Christian, and wound up mentioning that although I disagreed vehemently with many things that Billy Graham preached, I always felt his basic faith was sincere. This is in contrast to my opinion of Graham’s son who has taken over running the ministry, who both on air and in-person came across as an especially unethical used car salesman.

Even so, I was a bit surprised at my reaction to the news that the 99-year-old Billy Graham, oft described as “America’s Pastor,” died yesterday. Let’s make no mistake: while Graham was unusual among Southern Baptist ministers in the 1950s to embrace desegregation (“there is no segregation at the foot of the cross”) and at least gave lip service to decrying racism, he was an unrepentant homophobe. Statements he made over the years included: “Let me say this loud and clear, we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.” Or: “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not be sure, but I think so.” Graham claimed to be non-partisan, but often came down on the Republican side of many issues. “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.” And it’s really hard to justify some of the comments he made while discussing Jews and the media with President Nixon in the 1960s.

But Billy could preach! Oh, how he could preach! It’s difficult to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in an evangelical community in the 50s, 60s, or 70s the cherished place Graham inhabited in the hearts of the faithful, semi-faithful, and faithful-adjacent. Graham wasn’t just held up as an example of a good man and great preacher, people were so certain he was inspired by god, that quoting him sometimes had a stronger effect than quoting from the scripture.

As a teenaged Southern Baptist (very closeted) queer boy in the 70s, I was perhaps more acutely aware of how much Graham was revered than most. While many saw my flare for the dramatic as a troubling hint of queerness, others saw it as a calling from god to become a preacher. The combination of that theatricality with my ability to memorize and recall huge sections of the Bible, as well as a facility with language, and being quick-thinking on my feet had people talking about what a great preacher I would make when I was still in grade school. Once I was older, and had more experience thanks to musical groups, drama club, and the debate team, well, it surprised no one when elders of the church started trying to convince me to get ordained in my late teens.

At the same time, completely unbeknownst to me, Mom and several women in our church were meeting once a week to pray that god would “rescue” me from the temptation of homosexuality. I hadn’t come out to anyone, at all, at the time. And while there are been some very furtive sexual relationships with a few boys my age during middle school, by the time people’s suspicions had risen to that point I was celibate, secretly praying even more fervently than they were, and doing everything I possibly could to be straight.

Which is precisely why, when I was approached about ordination, I started meeting with one of the associate pastors and studying to become a minister. Like millions of religious queers before me, for some time I thought that embracing “full-time Christian service” might be the only way to make my feelings for other guys go away.

I should mention that in Southern Baptist churches at the time, ordination was something that happened usually at your local church before you went off to Bible college. Which is the reverse of the way most other denominations do it. So I was still a teen in my first year attending community college while meeting with the pastors and deacons of our church several times a week to study and pray about my future.

I wish I could say that what caused me to back out was an epiphany about my sexual orientation resulting in self-acceptance replacing the self-loathing I had been taught all my life. That tipping point wouldn’t come for a few more years, yet. I also wish I could say that it was learning that the origins of the Southern Baptist denomination were much more racist and pro-slavery than I had been taught. That shocked me a little bit, but I was already quite familiar with the fact that only a few years before this the Southern Baptist Convention had finally denounced segregation of the races.

What did bring me to my senses were two conversations that happened close together, each with a different deacon in our church.

In the first, the elder in question took issue with my continued interest in science, particularly my interest in astronomy and evolution. He was quite unimpressed by my argument that a god who could plan and carry out a plan involved 15 billions years of stellar evolution eventually leading to humans was a far more impressive feat then simply waving a magic wand and making everything at once. While he referenced the Baptist principle that interpreting the scripture was something each person must do on their own, he also made it clear that my adherence to scientific fact was not an asset for a pastor.

In the conversation with another deacon, I mentioned an article I had read recently in which I learned that Fred Rogers, famous as Mister Rogers on PBS stations, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who considered his work producing the children’s show his ministry. I thought it was a great example of how doing god’s work could take many forms The deacon had a very different view. First, he pointed out that (in the opinion of typical Southern Baptists), Presbyterians were “soft” on Biblical inerrancy. Further, if Rogers was actually doing god’s work, he would use that daily television show to tell children directly the story of Jesus. Since he didn’t do that, he wasn’t doing god’s work, according to this deacon. Finally, he said, “You know that Billy Graham was raised Presbyterian? He joined the Baptists because we’re actually doing god’s work.”

And those two conversations were the final nails in the coffin of me becoming a Baptist minister. The epiphany I had after those conversations was that all of the church leaders who had been urging me to become a minister didn’t really see the makings of a pastor in me. Instead, they thought that anyone who had Talent, whether it be intelligence, a gift for language, or whatever, who didn’t use that to evangelize wasn’t doing god’s work. That simply being a good person and doing what you can to make the corner of the world you were in a better place and to love your neighbors wasn’t enough.

I didn’t call things off until the end of the Sunday evening Church service where, as part of the process, I delivered a sermon and otherwise conducted the service. I still think that my John 16:33 sermon is an incredible work of art. But even as I was giving it, I knew the whole thing was a mistake. I suspect if I hadn’t called it off, that the deacon who was so concerned about my love of science would have done what he could to derail things. Regardless, there were a few more times over the next couple of years that leaders in that church and related churches came to me and asked me to prayerfully reconsider become a preacher.

I had learned my lesson: if the evangelical faith couldn’t accommodate both scientific fact and Mister Rogers, well, it didn’t have a place for me, either. I didn’t find my real place until several years later, but that’s a story for another day.


Note: The title comes from the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” by James M. Black, hymn #482 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.

Great-grandma’s Gun

My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I'm 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.

My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I’m 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.

I have often found myself in weird discussions/arguments with people who assume that because I favor many extremely liberal policies, I must be one of those evil anti-gun people. So before I get into this tale, let me begin by saying that I used to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I have owned guns. I have fired guns. I have almost never fired guns on a gun range, because we didn’t have many in the Rocky Mountain towns where I grew up. I was taught how to shoot a gun by being taken out into the wilderness by my father and grandfather and firing it for a couple of hours at various things we set up as targets. Then after the third of fourth weekend of doing that being told I needed to go shoot a rabbit or two if I wanted to eat that night.

Long before we got to that point there had been many, many gun safety lectures, because there were lots of guns (mostly hunting rifles) in the homes of most of my extended family. I knew how to take apart, clean, and put back together a bolt-action rifle and how to re-load bullet cases (by which I mean, measure out gunpowder, put it into a spent casing, align a new bullet and insert it with a hand operated press, and install a primer cap) years before I was allowed to hold a loaded gun and shoot it.

There were winters when the only reason there was enough food on the table for the whole family was because some of us had gotten a deer or elk during the appropriate season (not to mention rabbits, pheasants, and grouse). I should also mention that I was raised to look down my nose in disdain at people who hunted pheasant and other birds with a shotgun. As my Grandpa said, “If you can’t hit a flying grouse or dove or pheasant with a rifle, you have no business pointing a gun at anything.”

I should also mention, in case it isn’t obvious from the part about learning how to turn spent cartridges back into bullets, missing was considered wasteful. We couldn’t afford to waste a lot of bullets getting the food.

But as the title of this post suggests, today I need to tell you the story of Great-grandma’s Gun… Read More…

Confessions of a musical junkie (or, a crazy writer and his crazier playlists)

Three-year-old me at Christmas with my toy piano.

Three-year-old me at Christmas with my toy piano.

I am, indeed, one of those people who think there is a song from a musical for every situation. Some people consider this a stereotypical gay thing, but I know way more gay people who never liked theatre (musical or otherwise) than do (and there are plenty of straight people writing, performing, or buying tickets to Broadway musicals and the like). Oh, yes, there are arguments made about the kind of misfit who is drawn to the exaggerated and colorful worlds portrayed in musical theatre, and that’s why there are enough queer people into it to create the stereotype. But I think there’s more than a little bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that.

Regardless, I have a lot of musical soundtracks in my music collection, along with orchestral scores for my favorite movies and TV shows. And I have been known to surf to TuneFind.com while watching something when a particularly good piece of music is used to accompany a scene in one of my favorite shows, so I can buy a copy of the song for myself. And I’ve blogged before about how I create playlists specifically for certain writing projects.

I’ve had more than one friend comment, upon seeing the list of songs in one of my play lists, “How can you write while listening to songs with lyrics?” First, if a song has wound up in one of my playlists, it’s usually a song I’m already familiar enough with that I don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to parse the meaning of the song. Even with very voice-forward songs, while I’m writing I’m not processing the music as words, but as mood music.

Second, if a song is fairly new to me—I heard it for the first time, liked it a lot, bought it, and added it to my current writing playlist—I may pause while writing the next time it comes up. Far more likely, I will have heard the song a few more times before I’m next writing because I listen to the playlists at least as often when I’m not writing as when I am. While riding the bus to work, while working at my desk at my day job, while walking in the evening before heading home I’ll be listening to the current writing playlist, in part to get my subconscious working on the story while I’m dong these other things. I’m more likely to be in the mood to be productive on a personal writing project after a long workday if I’ve been listening to a playlist that I associate with the personal writing..

I need to make a small digression about my longer bus commute. I have tried several times to write on this bus route as I used to back on the Route D—the ride’s longer; I should be able to get more writing done! Unfortunately, the other difference is that the physical road seems to have a lot more potholes and irregularities. It’s really annoying, because the bouncing and dipping is pretty much constant. So there I am, holding my phone in my hand with one of my writing apps up but we’re constantly bouncing, so my thumbs keep hitting the wrong part of the screen. I get half a word typed and then get five incorrect letters in a cluster because of a particularly bad bounce, so I try to delete and there’s a bunch of smaller bounces and half my attempts to tap the backspace hit another key near it instead.

I can read (though sometimes that’s a little difficult). I can take notes. But when I’m writing, once my head is in the scene want to just get out this sentence and on to the next and the next. But I can’t get the flow going because of the dang bouncing. I tried to ignore the wrong letters and keep going one time, but I spent way more time correcting the gibberish once I got home and transferred it to the laptop that I realized bus writing is just not possible for most of the Route E.

Which has made the writing playlists take on a new importance. Since it is very difficult to write on the new bus route, what I do instead is listen to the current project’s playlist while either re-reading recently written scenes or going through my notes on the project.

One reason I have writing playlists is because music conveys emotion. It doesn’t just convey emotion, it generates emotion. When we hear a song we know well, it may remind us about a particular event, or a person, or just a time in our lives. And it doesn’t always have to be because we are remembering that song happening to accompany a particular memory. Sometimes a song that was written long after a particular event in your life manages, somehow, to evoke your memory of the experience.

Another reason I have writing playlists is going to sound strange to some. Dialog is, in my opinion, the heart of most stories. Dialog conveys information, and illustrates relationships of the people talking, and gives you a sense of the personalities of each speaker. A good dialog is like music. It isn’t just about the literal or contextual meaning of the words, but also the rhythm. Some phrases flow easily from one’s mouth, whereas badly written dialog will tie your tongue in a knot if you try to read it aloud. For me, listening to music while I write helps me find rhythms. The dialog just works better if I have a good set of songs going.

And another reason that I have writing lists is, I don’t like to write in silence. I can write in silence. But it’s difficult, sometimes. Maybe it’s because during my childhood, when I first started writing (I literally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at the age of six, and was regularly pounding out page after page of stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corono Silent Super typewriter by the age of ten) there was alway a lot of noise. Other people in the house doing things of their own. Dad watching a ballgame in the living room, while my sister was playing in her room and Mom was doing something in the sewing room. And there were often neighbors outside making noise.

“Jazz Hands!” - ICanHasCheezeburger.Com

“Jazz Hands!”

And for a lot of those years I would be back in my room, with the door closed, tapping away on those keys with the radio playing as I tried to learn the magic of dialog that sounded like real people, and scenes that moved the story along. Sometimes, an especially good song would come up and I might have to stop typing to sing along. And yes, sometimes I got up and danced around my room as I did so. But when the song ended, I’d go back to the typewriter. Giddy with the joy of the dancing, and feeling renewed determination for my hero to save the day.

Songs never mean the same thing to other people. So sharing my playlists probably doesn’t help any of my friends write. Though I have had one or two of them say that they were glad I introduced them to a particular song or artist when I share a list. And I know I have found great new songs when other people share their own lists. But while it may be futile to expect that one of my playlists will effect you the way they do me, I’m going to share four songs from my current novel editing playlist. The full playlist is nearly 60 songs. These aren’t a representative sample, but they are particular favorites. Three of these songs I associate with a specific character in my fictional universe–evoking a particular aspect of their personality, or even expression something that character believes are feels. One of them describes the past relationship between a pair of characters.

Enjoy!

Darling Lili– Whistling Away The Dark (HD) – JULIE ANDREWS :

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Mame – Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Bad Influence – P!nk (Music Video):

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Shrek 2 – Holding Out For a Hero – Jennifer Saunders:

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Portrait of the nerdy queer loudmouth as a child

I'm so old my school pictures are in black and white...

I’m so old my school pictures are in black and white…

I wrote about the Stonewall Riots several times last week, and at one point felt that I needed to clarify that I wasn’t personally involved. So I’ve uploaded my school picture from the year. As you can see, I was a bit too young to be hanging out in bars—even ones where the owners didn’t care much about checking IDs. Of course, it is demonstrated hundreds of times a year that being that young doesn’t shield one for homophobic bullying.

I was routinely called a “sissy” and “pussy” at school, on the playground, and even at home. Of course, those weren’t the worst insults. If my dad were really angry he’d call me “cocksucker.” This word was usually deployed while he was physically beating me, whereas the others usually never arrived with anything worse that a slap. Now, to be fair, he also yelled that word at tools that didn’t work the way he wanted, engines that were failing to perform correctly as he was repairing them, and so forth. It’s not that the word literally applied to me back then.

I was a sissy. I liked to sing along and dance in front of the TV when mom watched old musicals on the afternoon movie, for instance. I liked helping my mom, my grandmothers, and great-grandmothers in the kitchen. More of my friendships with kids my own age were with girls than with boys. I was horrible at any sports-related activity. I would much rather read (my mom taught me to read well enough to read picture books to my younger cousins before I entered school) than run around playing cops and robbers with the neighbors.

I also loved helping my grandpa do carpentry work (when I was really young that involved me following him around and trying to hand him the right tool). I loved working in the garden with my grandpa and great-grandpa. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any male role models — I had some very positive male role models in addition to the awful example of my father — I was just equally interested in things that stereotypically girls were expected to be interested in as those that boys are expected to like.

I wasn’t completely gender-non-conforming. I liked watching boxing with my paternal grandfather and football with my maternal grandfather (once I was living close enough to see him all the time). I loved playing with my Tonka trunks. I would create elaborate war and spy story scenarios to act out with my Captain Action action figure. I was really into the space program and built a model of the Gemini space capsule and later the Saturn V rocket and Apollo capsule and lunar module.

I have been a science fiction fan since before I can remember. My mom was into Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, and infected me with the sci fi bug very early. I was quite fluent in Heinlein’s brand of manly-men conquer alien worlds style of sci fi at a very early age.

But for every Tonka truck I longed for, there was an Easy-Bake Oven, or Barbie, or various kitchenware-based toys that I also wanted. And I could never quite understand why I got yelled at by Dad for wanting to play with those. I mean, one of my grandpas (Dad’s father) baked the best cornbread in the world (hand’s down!). If Grandpa could enjoy backing, why couldn’t I?

While some parts of my childhood were bad, I do have to admit that things could have been worse. I was bullied for not being manly enough by dad, other boys at school, certain male teachers, and more than a few church leaders. Mom and a bunch of the church ladies held secret prayer meetings to try to pray my (suspected) gayness away when I was a teen-ager. But, I wasn’t actually kicked out of the house (like thousands of kids around the country each year, and like two of my high school classmates) for being a queer.

And though I did go through more than one period of having suicidal thoughts, I never actually tried it. Unlike hundreds of kids each year who try and succeed because they’ve either been bullied for seeming queer and/or are terrified that their family will find out.

Most of that is down to luck. My love of sci fi/fantasy gave me access to a lot of literature that gave me hope for a better tomorrow. The vast majority wasn’t about a better tomorrow for queers, of course, but just a better, more enlightened tomorrow seemed less likely to be so hostile to boys like me. I also had some wonderful teachers and other adults in my life who affirmed my interests, and just affirmed me.

I also just don’t seem to be temperamentally able to give in completely to despair. There’s a stubborn core to my personality that believes I can beat or solve anything, if I just have enough time to figure it out. How much of it is inherited (I do come from a long line of very stubborn contrarians), and how much is learned (some of the stubborn relatives were in-laws or adoptive relatives), but I suspect more than a little of it is hardwired into my neurological system.

More than one of those relatives who were important role models were also outspoken advocates for doing what’s right, standing up for yourself and others, and never being ashamed to be yourself. That some of them contradicted those lessons a bit later in life when I came out didn’t shake the foundation they had helped lay in my heart, though.

So, I’ve been a nerdy queer loudmouth for as long as I can remember. That’s more than 50 years. I don’t know why anyone would expect that to change now.

Seriously, it’s all Greek — more adventures in dictionaries

“...involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one's own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one's own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.”

“…involving, related to, or characterized by a sexual propensity for one’s own sex; of or involving sexual activity with a member of one’s own sex, or between individuals of the same sex.” (Click to embiggen; I got a new self-lighting magnifier for my Compact Oxford—isn’t it neat?)

It happened after a committee meeting for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus when we had devolved to chatting. I don’t remember exactly what was being discussed, but one of the women got upset when I used the word “gay” to refer to the entire community. “That excludes women,” she said, icily. I apologized and said I didn’t mean to do that, it was just fewer syllables and sometimes I just wished there were a shorter way to refer to everyone, and homosexual is so clinical. She interrupted, leaning in and getting much angrier. “Another word for men! Geeze, how can you do that?” When I protested that it was a clinical term originally coined to refer to both men and women she really got upset, insisting, “Homo means man! Yeah, yeah, it’s like mankind means everyone because men think they’re all the matters!”

At this point I was no longer feeling defensive, I was feeling angry. So I explained that while if one were speaking Latin, “homo” meant man, but the word wasn’t built from Latin roots, it was from Greek roots, and in Greek, homo means “the same” which is why the doctor who first coined the term picked it, as he had written about extensively that he was describing people who were attracted to and formed attachment to member of the same sex, in contrast to hetero which is greek for “other or different.” So “heterosexual” meant someone attracted to the other sex, while “homosexual” meant someone attracted to the same sex. Also, the doctor in question was himself non-heterosexual and spent much of his life trying to prove that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

Suffice it to say that she did not appreciate my lecture.

That was not the last time I got into that argument, by any means.

Other times when I’ve pointed out the difference between the Greek root and the Latin word which sounds the same, people have countered that “a lot of people think it means male!” To which I replied that a many people think the world is flat, but I’m not going to stop using the word “world” because some people are ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand that perception is important, but here’s the thing: if I point to a crowded room full of people of many different genders and say “they’re all homosexual” not one English speaking person in the whole world is going to think I’m only referring to the men. No one will be confused. Yes, a few of the women in the crowd may raise the same incorrect objection as the person in my first paragraph, and some bisexual or pansexual people in the crowd will make an equally incorrect objection (there is no portion of homosexual that means exclusively with one’s own gender, just that there is a propensity toward one’s own gender). I will grant that if there are any asexual people in the crowd they will have, linguistically, a valid bone to pick with my sweeping generalization.

The thing is, I don’t happen to like using the word homosexual because it sounds so clinical, and despite the word being coined by a pro-homo doctor, originally, it was quickly adopted by the parts of the medical establishment who insisted we were mentally ill or depraved. But I also don’t like using it to refer to the community because no matter how you slice it, it does exclude asexuals, as well as trans people who are also straight.

If I’m in a situation where queer isn’t accepted, I will sometimes punt to “non-heterosexual,” but that has the problem of defining us by what we aren’t, rather than what we are.

There are people who object to the term because it places emphasis on sex, while we often argue that the real issue is love. I have some small amount of sympathy for that line of reasoning, though it often digresses into rather sex-negative prudery. And while there is a difference between love and sex, for most non-asexuals, the two things are tangled together pretty tightly. I am attracted to other men. The initial attraction is, to be honest, about hormones and desire. For me, at least, love is a choice I make as I get to know a person. Yes, there are feelings and admiration and so forth, but I have feelings for lots of people who I don’t choose to commit myself to. I admire lots of people I don’t choose to commit myself to.

This attempt to separate the sex from sexual orientation also ignores another important reality: heterosexual relationships are just as much about sex as queer relationships are. Don’t believe me? What were the only legal arguments that anti-gay people had left by the time the case had reached the U.S. Supreme Court: that marriage was exclusively about reproduction, and that heterosexual people would never make the lifelong commitments necessary to raise the resultant children is legal marriage wasn’t reserved for straights (no, that argument makes no sense, and yes, that’s really what they wrote in their legal briefs!). Yes, the people who claim that we’re the perverts obsessed with sex argued that it was wrong to define marriage as a loving relationship geared toward mutual support (yes, that was also in their legal brief).

But I’ve digressed enough. The word “homosexual” does not simply refer to men, it comes from the Greek word homo meaning “the same.” Neither does the word refer to any exclusivity in that sexual orientation. Also, although hetero means “other or different,” neither heterosexual or homosexual linguistically imply only two genders. Heterosexual literally means sexual activity with someone of a different sex, not the opposite sex. So not only isn’t the word sexist, it also doesn’t deny the existence of genderfluid or intersex or third sex people.

And now you know!

The meaning of everything—more adventures in dictionaries

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn't 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn’t 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

I’ve mentioned many times that my childhood was spread over ten elementary schools in four different states thanks to my dad’s employment in the petroleum industry. Those ten schools varied a lot, but one thing all of them had in common was a library; and one of the things each of those libraries had in common was a big dictionary. They didn’t all have the exact same dictionary, but there was always at least one large hardbound dictionary, frequently on display on a stand or lectern.

I distinctly remember the library at the elementary school in Kimball, Nebraska keeping its dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach the book, and it had a sign that said it was off-limits to anyone below fourth grade. When I asked why, I was told that it was too heavy for us smaller kids to lift, that it was printed on extremely thin paper which was easily torn, and besides, us lower grade kids couldn’t really understand it. I argued, of course, which got me nowhere. In fact, a note about my bad attitude was sent home to my parents. Surprisingly, my dad wasn’t angry at me about that, and seemed to actually take my side (though he didn’t go so far as to do anything about it).

I was apparently so offended at the notion that I, as a second-grader, couldn’t understand a dictionary, that I ranted about it at Sunday School. Which eventually led the wife of the pastor at the church we were attending to give me a dictionary of my own. It was an old desk dictionary whose cover was held on by a lot of layers of black book tape, but it was mine. My parents didn’t have a dictionary in the house before then (though over the next few years we acquired a couple more).

But to get back to those big dictionaries in the library, all of them said “Webster’s” on the cover, often in gold printing. A large number of them were probably various printings of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary second edition. But because the original dictionaries edited by Noah Webster had fallen into the public domain by 1889, other publishers have been using the name in the title of their dictionaries. So some of them were probably from other publishers.

I was in the fifth grade when I learned the latter fact: that just because a dictionary’s cover said “Webster’s” didn’t mean it actually was Webster’s. But at the same time I also learned about the Oxford English Dictionary. The teacher in question was deeply enamored with the OED, having started using it at libraries while he was studying in the United Kingdom, and hoped someday to own his own copy. He told us that the dictionar was so big it couldn’t be published in one book, but was split into multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia, and cost thousands of dollars. I remember specifically him explaining that it was about 30 volumes.

I learned later that the last bit was completely wrong. At the time this teacher was studying abroad, the second edition of the OED hadn’t yet been printed. The second edition is 20 volumes, whereas the first was originally ten volumes, with only three supplemental volumes having been published by the time the teacher was back in the U.S. and teaching us in the tiny town of Roosevelt, Utah. I don’t know if he truly didn’t remember how many volumes it was (which suggests that he may have used it at a library only once or twice), or if he was exaggerating for effect (giving this teacher’s personality, either was likely), but he was incorrect about the number of volumes.

Still the image of thirteen big hardback books being necessary to contain all the text of a dictionary was pretty magical. And ever since I’d learned of its existence, I too, dreamed of a day when I would have a copy of the OED of my own. It is definitely a dream, because the retail price of the full twenty volume set is usually listed at $1295 – though you can usually find it being offered at just under a thousand. I found a set in a used bookstore once… locked up in a glass case and being offered for even more than that. It wasn’t the 20-volume second edition (first published in 1989) but the old 10 volume set from 1928.

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set)

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set (me included for scale).

Given those prices (and once you learn how much work goes into producing a high quality dictionary {many years, dozens of editors, hundreds of readers scouring old books}, you’ll understand why the price tag is so high), I had to content myself with various abridged versions for several years. Until my husband surprised me on one birthday with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact Oxford is a very clever book: it contains the full text of the twenty volume dictionary in a single book. They do that by printing on each page of this oversized book tiny images of pages of the dictionary—nine pages of the large dictionary on each page of the Compact. The resulting text is so small that you need a strong magnifier to read the text. So it’s a little weird… but also very cool. At least in a geeky way.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

I’d heard about the Compact Oxford long before I’d seen one. Sometime in the early 90s a co-worker mentioned that there was a one-volume version that they sold with a magnifying glass, but that’s all the details I had at the time. I didn’t realize that they were publishing a bunch of miniature images of full pages, nor did I understand just how tiny the type really was. I had been been quite happy with my copy of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition because it is a big, hefty dictionary, almost the size of some of my other unabridged dictionaries, and it had those painstaking word histories that the Oxford is famous for. Then one birthday my husband hauls out a giant present and sets it in front of me. I thought it was a computer of something at first, until I tried to lift it. It was way too heavy for the size. Under the wrapping paper as a big box with the words “The Compact Oxford Dictionary” and “Includes Magnifier.” I was speechless. He was grinning ear-to-ear, of course. It came with more than a magnifier (and a velvet bag to keep the magnifier in). There is a secondary book with instructions on how to use the big book, a protective holder that the two books can slide into—you can put the holder on the shelf, read the spine of the dictionary, and tilt it out easily enough. The holder is substantial enough that even on a shelf with a whole bunch of equally ginormous books (such as six other unabridged dictionaries from other publishers) and it will hold the space open for the book. Which I realized is most useful when you got to put the book back.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Being the kind of nerdy collector I am, getting this book has kicked off another obsession: trying to find the perfect magnifier. A regular magnifying glass that you might pick up for home use only magnifies about 2x or 3x, and that’s just not enough to read the tiny print. The one that came with the book is a 4x magnifier, which is adequate. In the years since I got the dictionary, I’ve found a couple of 5x that work better, though sometimes getting the light right is tricky. There have been many times I’ve slid the magnifier around with one hand while shining a flashlight with the other, finding the perfect angle to light up the words without creating a glare on the part I’m trying to read. It works best with a table big enough that you can lay the dictionary flat while you’re reading.

I’m more than occasionally asked by people why I need more than one dictionary–often with the admonishment, “You know, you can look words up online.” The free online dictionaries give you a fraction of the information about each word that even a $30 collegiate dictionary will provide, is the short answer. And most don’t have the word histories—telling you what year the first use of a particular meaning of the word appeared in print. There is also something to be learned by comparing the definitions in different dictionaries. Which people who aren’t word nerds don’t understand. Then, of course, for some of my dictionaries, there’s that Old Book smell. And you just can’t get that from an online reference.

It is true that more often I look things up in the electronic Shorter Oxford that I bought for both my Mac and iPad/iPhone, simply because it’s more convenient, and I’m usually not needing all of the extra information. (And the purchased app contains more information that the free online sources!)

But the real reason that someone who will suggest looking things up online instead of cracking open a dictionary will never understand is that the dictionaries aren’t just to “look it up” and go. Books have always been magical portals for me. They take me to far away places, or fabulous worlds, or just the mind and heart of another person. That’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t just references to me. I love to read them. I love to browse from entry to entry, going down metaphorical rabbit holes as, while I’m reading about one word, a reference is made to a derivation of another word, or a different word that shares a similar root (I love the phrase some dictionaries use, “more at xxxx”!), and going off to read that, which leads to another, and another…

The whole world is contained in a good dictionary. Not just language and meaning, but history and culture (yes, the good and the bad). Finding all of that isn’t something you get just be reading an entry or two. You have to wander and browse and get lost among the words.

It’s an adventure!


I stole the title of this blog post from the very excellent book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. It’s a wonderful read about the decades-long obsession of many people to create the definitive English dictionary. You should also check out his related book, Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re both great!

If you want a good, but affordable version of the Oxford Dictionary (technically small enough to fit in a pocket), it can be had: The Oxford Color Dictionary. It’s not just a dictionary about colors; they put the word color in the title because all of the main headings in the book are printed in a nice blue, which isn’t just meant to make it pretty. As I said it is technically a pocket dictionary. The pages are very small and the font is smallish. They use of color for the words and black text for the definitions, etymologies, et al. It really makes it easy to find the words you want. And it’s cheap! There’s also a companion Color Thesaurus.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – more adventures in dictionaries

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

In 1875 Isaac Kaufmann Funk started a publishing company. Two years later one of his friends from University, Adam Willis Wagnalls, joined the firm as a partner and they renamed the business Funk & Wagnalls Company. For the next 13 years they published mostly religious books, but switched to reference after the success of their The Standard Dictionary of English in 1894. This eventually led in 1912 to the publishing Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia.

Isaac Funk did not like the conventions of other dictionaries at the time, espousing his editorial philosophy in four principles:

  • the definitions should be ordered according to current usage, rather than historical meaning
  • etymologies (word origin and/or derivation) should come after the definition, rather than before
  • there should be one alphabetic list of all words, rather than the book being divided into separate sections of geographical, mythical, biblical, and biographical terms
  • all entries that aren’t proper nouns should be published in all lowercase

Funk also had a passion for accurate phonetics.

They published an updated and expanded two-volume version of the dictionary, called the New Standard Unabridged Dictionary in 1913, which they continued to update with new editions until 1943. The Funk and Wagnalls Student’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1920, then Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary (another two-volume set) from 1946. Not to mention various specialty dictionaries.

They became a household name (as it were) when in 1953, in a deal with Unicorn Press, the encyclopedias started being sold in grocery stores. Not the entire set at once, mind you. No, each week a new volume became available. Volume one sold for 99-cents and subsequent volumes where $2.99 a piece. If you remember to go to your local supermarket every week, in just four or five months you could have the entire encyclopedia. The encyclopedias continued to be sold that way until some time in the 1970s.

But what really put Funk & Wagnalls on the pop culture map were some kings of television comedy in the 1960s. Johnny Carson appears to have been the first person, on his nightly Tonight Show to occassionally use the name of either the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia or dictionary in various jokes where he would allude to the f-word or other sexual matters without getting in trouble with the network censors. But things really took off when it became a running gag on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The catch phrase, “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls” was a running joke, as well as other references to the publisher’s awkward to pronounce name to allude to sexual topics.

There is also the much repeated story the Jerry Garcia got the idea to rename his band, The Warlocks, as the Grateful Dead, because he found the phrase while thumbing through a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary while smoking dope with a bunch of friends. For a long time Garcia’s story was considered a misremembering, as no one could find an entry for grateful dead in the editions of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries. Finally, someone found a copy of The Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition whose editorial board had included the chief editor of the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. The 1955 Britannica World Language edition included a number of terms from folklore and mythology that don’t appear in any other edition of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries.

I think I first saw the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia during one of the grocery store promotions, though I also remember the two-volume dictionary set being owned by my paternal grandparents. Funk & Wagnalls never became as famous (nor was considered as definitive) as the Merriam-Websters or Oxford dictionaries, but they were good reference books. And the idea first popularlized by Isaac Funk that the dictionary should focus first on current usage, was eventually adopted by more famous dictionaries. That isn’t a bad legacy.

And if you don’t know what I mean by legacy, well, you can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls!

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