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Power of Chest Expansion!

Monday February 16, 2009 @ 05:24 PM (UTC)

Once upon a time, at the urging of one Ryan Grove, I added a copy of Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 to my collection of old X-Men continuity. It didn’t strike the same chord with me. We’re talking seriously old school Spidey – J. Jonah Jameson was not the only one with a vaguely square head, the villains were kooktacular (and I say that as a Batman fan) and the dialogue was somewhat clunky. Most memorably for me, Spidey’s powers hadn’t been pinned down. In one panel, pinioned by ropes, he decided to snap them using “my power of Chest Expansion!” I think I fell off my chair.

There may be worse sudden power inventions – the Superbreath of Memory Theft from Superman II, for instance – but it stands out for its petty perfection. Chest expansion? Couldn’t he have used his Spider Strength? From whence does this Chest Expansion spring? Since spiders have exoskeletons, it’s hard to imagine them puffing up their thoraces. It’s a one-off power (like the Superbreath) that solves the situation he’s in, with no care for consistency.

Every time a character in a book ‘remembers’ or discovers a new power or area of knowledge, I think of Spidey snapping those ropes. It’s lazy. It’s writing yourself into a situation and cheating your way out – giving the character a new tool to overcome the challenge, rather than using the capabilities he has creatively, rewriting the challenge, or changing the circumstances. It’s drawing endless Chekhovian guns out of your trenchcoat instead of going back and writing one onto the mantel. There are probably genres – campy, over-the-top or deliberately cinematic genres – for which this works. But for most books, having the author suddenly upload a skill into the protagonist’s head Matrix-style snaps me out of the action, unsuspends my disbelief, and leaves me feeling betrayed.

At least until someone breathes on a cup of water and I forget the whole thing.

Identify yourself

Sunday February 08, 2009 @ 09:31 PM (UTC)

I’ve mentioned my discomfiture with the term ‘white’ and its pseudo-scientific relative ‘Caucasian’ on at least one occasion. ‘White’ is a false monolith of assimilated, ‘non-ethnic’ culture. It’s also, in one sense, a useful diagnostic term: I’m white, because I have white privilege. I think it’s worth acknowledging that privilege, even though I would love to tear it down along with the nonsense, ‘unmarked’ category.*

I thought I’d accepted that definition: I have white privilege, I acknowledge it by admitting I’m white. But on a panel at Orycon, I came up short. It was a panel on using non-European folklore in fiction, and the moderator asked each of the panelists to sketch her (and in one case, his) background, personal and artistic. I was last, and she turned to me and said, “And, Felicity, you identify as white, right?”

I sat there, opened and closed my mouth. Eventually, some words managed to tumble out, probably to the effect that yes, I am white. I felt stunned for a few minutes, not to mention (still) quite embarrassed for turning incoherent in front of a room full of people. It seemed so silly. How was this any different from the aforementioned ‘ethnicity’ checkbox? Wasn’t this a ludicrous reaction on my part?

I’ve managed to convince myself that it wasn’t. ‘Identify’. It’s a loaded term in these contexts. Perhaps the most well-known example these days, known even to those of us who haven’t (yet!) read Dreams from my Father, is President Obama’s identification as African-American. The media’s obsessed debate over his racial identity showed that people think this kind of thing is mutable, but most agree that it’s fundamentally Obama’s right to mediate his own racial affiliation. Naming has power, and self-naming is particularly heady. From race to political inclination to gender and sexual politics, people self-describe and self-categorize: feminist or womanist, gay or same gender loving, disabled person or person with disabilities: these distinctions are meaningful, often crucially so, to those making them. You cannot stop others labeling you, or understanding you according to their own rubrics, but you can choose your terms. You can define yourself.

For me, this question of ethnic identity is not so simple as ‘do you have white privilege?’ To say that it is is to wipe away the traditions from which my ancestors rose. It’s affirming and embracing the false homogeneity of white mainstream culture. It’s not as simple as my DNA. I have drops of blood from places only recently discovered by my grandmother’s genealogical excavations, and gouts of it from cultures deliberately put aside and denied by my forebears. Those contributions to who I am may be too far back, or too far away, or too small, to claim. My identity is something I am still making, something I am naming based on an interplay of factors.

But if I could go back and whisper in my own ear at that panel, I would say: “I identify as Welsh-English-Irish-French.” Yes, it’s long, and complex, and messy. But it’s true. I have studied those cultures, histories, even languages, and they are part of who I am. I am not unmarked. I mark myself.

*I’m pretty interested in this concept of ‘markedness’, as it applies to people and types of writing. It’s what I was trying to get at with my post “Maleness is the human default.”

I realize that in our youth-obsessed culture, a twenty-eight year-old (well, 27 and fifty weeks) is expected to giggle with girlish glee when a strange man thinks she’s young. But there is something in a solicitor saying “Are your mom and dad at home?” that gets on my nerves. The feeling that the hipster on the stoop is not part of the reality-based community, perhaps, or the fact that the question clearly dismisses me as a potential source of help to destitute orphans or environmentalists – dismisses my agency, as it were.

Therefore, I offer the following tips, fully cognizant of the fact that they rely on generalizations about what kids and teens are like versus what adults are like. In fact, some of them wouldn’t have held true for me at 14 (and I do realize I’m wearing a shirt I already owned at that age.) Regardless, please read on, charitable clipboarders of the world. Read and consider.

Observe interrupted activity. Is the woman wearing an apron or overalls? Does she have a dust-rag stuck in her pocket, or is her face or shirt covered in flour? Juvenile humans tend to have more success avoiding homely tasks such as cooking or cleaning than do the fully grown specimens, and they less often have specialized chore-clothing for these activities. If there is evidence you have interrupted the subject while reading, does the book appear to be an introductory textbook? A weighty Russian novel? Use your skills of inference.

Listen to the music. Holst art songs are more likely to belong to a twenty-eight-year-old than to a teenybopper. If it were Beyoncé, I admit that might be a poser. But in general, Miles Davis means adult, Miley Cyrus means pre-teen. Got it?

Assess bosom size. You heard me. I have it on good authority that heterosexual men are skilled in observing this area without appearing to do so. So use your peripheral vision and your judgment, and remember that while many grown women wear A-cups, not too many eleven-year-olds sport Cs.

Consider which way you want to err. I have never heard a fourteen-year-old annoyed by being thought to be grown up. I am not the only twenty-something, however, who is annoyed at being written off by people who came around to bother HER in the first place. Being thought too young to buy alcohol means you look like a young adult; being thought too young to hear a spiel on beach clean-up is a little insulting.

Do I really think this blog post will make a lick of difference? No. But I have hereby tried to meet them halfway, and I’m therefore allowed to indulge in any hijinx I may please in future. Next time I come to the door in an apron and a BUN (pigtails I can understand, but a BUN?) and get asked whether my parents are home, there will be sport.

Petty Peevishness VI

Wednesday January 28, 2009 @ 04:37 PM (UTC)

Dear sweet English. You’re such an enthusiastic language. You like to grab. But it’s good to take care of the things you borrow from other languages, even if those languages confuse you.

It is unacceptable to fail to pronounce consonants in French words and phrases simply because French has more silent letters than English does.

It is wrong to pronounce “the blow of mercy” “the blow of grease”. Especially on national radio. The momentary blindness of wrath could cause a pedant to crash her car.

Coup de grace. Grahss. GrahSSSSSSSS. Please. For automotive safety.

In praise of post

Wednesday January 28, 2009 @ 01:02 PM (UTC)

If, like me, you have a fondness for postal mail and find paper letters a particularly meaningful way to connect with others, perhaps you will appreciate this report from the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake:

…William Burke, the postmaster’s secretary, recounted what happened when he took a U.S. Mail sign from a streetcar barn and mounted it on the top of a car he had pressed into service to collect the mail.
“The effect was electrical. As people saw the machine bearing the mail coming, they cheered and shouted in a state bordering on hysteria. We told them where the collections would be made in the afternoon and asked that they spread the news. As we went into the Presidio there was almost a riot, and the people crowded around the machine and almost blocked its progress. It was evidently taken as the first sign of rehabilitation and, as it proceeded, the mail automobile left hope in its wake…”
— Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World

Perhaps we take the mail for granted, relying as we so often do now on faster, more ethereal transmissions. But think about it — for under two bits (for no money at all, in the generous wake of the earthquake) a man or woman you do not know will take your message and ensure it gets to your friends and family. Your piece of paper, your artefact, can cross all the great miles of this country safely and promptly, and assure your family with its very weight and reality that all is well. That’s civilization.

January Pie

Monday January 26, 2009 @ 02:34 PM (UTC)

I have about four different blog posts in various states of construction, on weighty topics like identity, truth, robots, et cetera. But I really should post more often, and give you guys a break from the heavy philosophy, so here is a pie I made this month for Ryan. I may be making another one for GreyStork’s belated birthday bash, too. Only the pie-mad genius of Ken Haedrich could bring you a delicious recipe that uses canned peaches to tide you through the winter.

Look, pie

This has been your carefully constituted content-substitute for today. Happy Lunar New Year!

Blockquote for Choice day

Thursday January 22, 2009 @ 03:18 PM (UTC)

Today is Blog for Choice day. I don’t have very much to say about this year’s theme, which is pro-choice hopes for the new administration and Congress. I’m proud my state is among the states suing over the vague, sweeping, awful new HHS regulations, but I don’t have anything to say about it that you couldn’t read somewhere with more authority. I thought I’d mark the occasion with an interesting quote I marked with my Book Darts lately. This is from Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, a memoir about her friendship with late poet Lucy Grealy.

In the days before Roe v. Wade, I doubt that many American women were wracked with guilt over having abortions. They were too busy wondering if they were going to be butchered. So when luck went their way and they made it through the procedure safely, it was a cause for celebration rather than remorse. What legalized abortion brought to this country, along with safe medical practices, was the expectation of shame, the need to wonder if you were doing the right thing, even though you knew exactly what you’d do in the end. We could have our abortions but we had to feel horrible for the decision we made, even if it was hardly a decision at all. So while social decency compels me to say that on the train uptown we cried and cursed fate and wondered what life might be like with a baby, the truth is we did not. I could not imagine Lucy looking after a baby for an afternoon, much less a lifetime. She did not try to imagine it at all. [page 128, Perennial trade paperback]

I don’t really have any burning comments on the passage. I just think it’s an interesting perspective from up close.

Anglo-Saxon on the banks of the River Anduin

Tuesday January 20, 2009 @ 11:03 PM (UTC)

There are many chunks of writing advice that float around in the academic soup, giving and receiving flavor. (Maybe I need some about metaphor, myself.) One of these is about using Anglo-Saxon words. I’ve no idea if it originated with John Gardner’s classic The Art of Fiction, but he does put it forth:

If the writer says “creatures” instead of “snakes,” if in an attempt to impress us with fancy talk he uses Latinate terms like “hostile maneuvers” instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like “thrash,” “coil,” “spit,” “hiss,” and “writhe,” if instead of the desert’s sands and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ “inhospitable abode,” the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up on his mental screen.

I have historically been doubtful of this stricture, especially since some teachers apply it with less discrimination than Gardner does above. Obviously your aim in writing fiction shouldn’t be to impress the reader with your vocabulary, but cutting out an entire rich swath of our hodgepodge language seems extreme. For instance, you can’t get more Latinate than ‘susurrate’, but the onomatopoeic felicities of its repeated s and soft murmur can’t be overstated. The rule does have its points – choose a word that has auditory punch when possible, and don’t use abstractions when grittiness will communicate better. Luckily, I’ve been given a meta-rule that trumps all the rules and lets me pick and choose – “Find the rules, break the rules,” per Marvin Bell – a one rule to rule them all, if you will.

Which brings me to the true topic of this post. I was tempted by the Lord of the Rings reread into undertaking that monumental task myself (thus interrupting my Aubrey-Maturin reread/read, as well as the almost 200 fresh books I have on my list.) But true to form, once I’d caught up with the group reread, I could not stop and plunged headily onwards. Ask any of my primary (and some of my secondary) school teachers about my ability to see, process and act upon a chapter break appropriately. Ahem.

I plunged through Volume One*, The Ring Sets Out and was wrapping up Volume Two, The Ring Goes South, when I ran up against a word. “That night they camped on a small eyot close to the western bank.” [emphasis mine] Now, I’ve read this book on paper before, as well as listening to it aloud, but I’ve never noticed this word before. I attribute this oversight to the fact that prior to taking “History of the English Language” in undergrad, I wouldn’t have had a frisson** of linguistic glee at the word.

You see, while I’d never noticed the word before, I was sure it was related to ‘ea-land’, the Old English word that meant stream-land. The fledgling science of linguistics incorrectly guessed this word was related to the Latin isla, and therefore we have the unphonetic standard spelling ‘island’. It’s the classic example of how goofily English spelling was standardized, and here I was running across another word sprung from that noble root. (Presumably – checking the OED shows that history is unclear as to the exact lineage of ‘eyot’/‘ait’)

Three pages later (after several more repetitions of ‘eyot’) I came across this passage:

The next day the country on either side began to change rapidly. The banks began to rise and grow stony. Soon they were passing through a hilly rocky land, and on both shores there were steep slopes buried in deep brakes of thorn and sloe, tangled with brambles and creepers.

Now, quickly, and without recourse to references, what is ‘brake’ in this context? How about ‘sloe’? I would suppose few of us know, and no more, I would guess, do or did many of Tolkien’s readers. But does it stop you enjoying the story or even make you lose the sense of the sentence? It did not for me. Part of this smooth reading experience is the way Tolkien has embedded these slightly archaic words in context, much as Patrick O’Brian embeds unusual or specialized words in text that allows the reader to gloss them. But I think another part is their very Anglo-Saxonness.

brake, the OED informs, is established in English by the 15th century, and analogous to the Middle Low German brake. It means “a clump of bushes, brushwood, or briers; a thicket.”

sloe is from the Old English slá and is the blackthorn, or its fruit.

Now, we didn’t necessarily know that. But it didn’t confuse us to read it, and I think it enriched our experience. The confusion of plants making a wilderness of the riverbank is made more complex – more literally confusing – by these inclusions. What is more, they fall upon the ear as English, similar in sound to many words we use every day. They work beautifully read aloud, as does the book as a whole. They are venerable remnants of our own language, and give an air of primal familiarity to Middle Earth. And while that’s not among Gardner’s list of reasons to use words rooted in Anglo-Saxon, it’s a beautiful effect to create. And I’m sure, for a linguist like Tolkien, it wasn’t hard to summon the magic words.

*I’m rereading my Millennium Edition copy, which separates Lord of the Rings into its six volumes, rather than the three books in which it was originally published. I like it.

**There I go using Romance languages. Sorry, Gardner and friends. I will not stop. Je refuse!

Top Ten Reasons I'm glad to be back in Oregon

Wednesday January 14, 2009 @ 12:00 PM (UTC)

10. Online access to the OED through Multnomah County Libraries. Oh yes.

9. Shopping Locally. Also see #7. The area of San Jose where I lived had astoundingly few locally-owned businesses. One per shopping center or less. In this area of Portland, the ratio is almost reversed. In t.c.e.c. (the current economic climate), it feels good to know your money is going directly into your community.

8. The roads, and being on them less. Fewer potholes (save for I-5 North after three freezes and a week of chained semis), fewer drivers, lower average speed, and less merging. This also means fewer ‘grouse’ entries.

7. My favorite shops – from tea purveyors to stationers, I know where to go to get what I want.

6. Walks. I haven’t always lived in a walkable area, but I do now, and I cherish it like the dickens. Besides, it’s easy to get somewhere to stroll all the afternoon using…

5. Tri-Met. I never knew how much I loved you until you weren’t there with your low, low fares and convenient routes.

4. Weather. Actual weather. Rain for my amphibian skin. Wind for brisk walks. Clouds to watch as I ponder.

3. Landscape. Dark points of conifers, mist-veiled mountains…this is where I belong.

2. People. I left some good friends in California, but I’m not just talking about my pals, Ryan’s folks across the Water, my uncle in our quadrant of Portland, or my sister up in Seattle. I grew up in the friendly but unassuming civility of the Northwest, and it is my natural habitat.

1. Powell’s. Yes, feel free to be insulted, #2. And no, this is not part of #9 or #7. Powell’s is the center of my universe and the signed pillar in the spec-fic section holds up my sky. I am gravitationally attracted to books. Don’t judge me!


Monday January 12, 2009 @ 11:38 AM (UTC)

Ryan whipped up the ‘Top Tags’ Thoth plugin for me, to replace ‘Categories’ in my sidebar. Yup, little to the right, little bit down…that’s it. Top Tags. I hastened to taggify many of my articles, so that the Top Tags would be fairly representative. I had a hard time figuring out, at first, which tags I would reuse a lot, but soon I discovered, poring over my archives, that many of my articles were, well, WHINY. Perhaps not so much whiny as KVETCHY. I started tagging these complaints ‘grouse’, and was horrified to discover that ‘grouse’ quickly hit my Top Tags.

I don’t think of Faerye Net as a negative place! I was mortified at the idea that instead of ‘anecdotes, opinions and occasional fiction’, I might be providing complaints, whinges and occasional fiction. I invented the antonymic tag ‘huzzah’, and hastened to apply it. It did not rise into the top tags. I tagged more of the archives. Nothing rose to topple ‘grouse’ off the list. So I resolved to be more positive, to post fewer articles that required the description ‘grouse’ in future.

As of December 28, with this post, I geek over language more often than I complain. Vocabulary is in the top five. My tagging is by no means complete – lots of the archive languish unfolksonomified (and, since the switch to tags also switched us to Textile word-formatting markup, unchecked for formatting blips) and I still think I need to come up with a tag to distinguish posts about writing from posts which contain my writing (like the Grey City chronicles.) But at least I can rest secure knowing that I’ve made Faerye Net a less whingey place. One small step for a kvetch.

P.S. As of this post, ‘huzzah’ ties ‘grouse’ at 30 posts. Ha!

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