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Darmok and diversions

Thursday October 07, 2010 @ 10:46 PM (UTC)

I’ve been substitute-teaching again, a pursuit which reminds me that, contrary to what I was taught of sleep cycles in Psych 101, I still apparently have the 26-hour day of a teenager. Since I go to sleep at a grown-up time and no longer live with a patient mother who is willing to shake and wake seven times before seven o’clock, this is a trial. You may infer what you wish from this about my blogging regularity. In case I haven’t mentioned it, I substitute-teach at the private high school from which I graduated, sometimes for teachers under whose auspices I myself learned. It is surreal and enriching.

Today was a great joy. Many of the sweetest moments in my return to this school are in the actual teaching, which is of course difficult, changeable, suddenly enlightening stuff. But today my task was the classic sub-task: DVD in, lights off, stern gaze on. It was a good day to sub, however, for today I administered a Freshman tradition: Darmok Day.

In my eighth grade year I had argued with my Government and Language Arts teachers. “Why do you have to show us such BAD episodes of Star Trek? These non-Trekkers are going to think it’s all like that!” Yes, I said “Trekkers”, for I was a TNG nerd. In 8th grade, they showed us Wesley Whining and Riker and the Androgynous Being. But in ninth grade, my Humanities teachers finally showed the class a good episode of TNG. “Darmok”.

Freshman Humanities is an English/History combined course that takes students through several millennia of human history and a pile of major religious texts and epics. At first "Darmok"’s connection to this seems somewhat tenuous: Picard recounts the story of Gilgamesh to the wounded Tamarian Dathon. Today’s students, still raw from their first-ever high school critical essay (on this same Gilgamesh), groaned at the name.

But when I pressed them to consider why the freshmen watch this every year, they did see that a sci-fi tale of a culture which communicates entirely in terms of shared, mythohistoric stories had some relevance to a class where the students establish a knowledge of our own planet’s oldest shared mythohistoric stories. Stories that will allow them to communicate and understand. I didn’t mention, but did think, that in an odd way it connects them to traditions at their own school, to years of students yelling back and forth across the Great Hall: “Darmok and Jalad!” “At Tanagra!” Cultures within cultures, with their own languages of reference and metaphor.

And of course, as one earnest young man said when I called on him, “Because Star Trek is awesome!”

Letter to the Beaverton School District

Tuesday October 05, 2010 @ 12:45 PM (UTC)

As discussed yesterday, here is the letter I am sending to the Beaverton School District Superintendent.

October 4, 2010

Superintendent Jerome Colonna
Beaverton School District
16550 SW Merlo Road
Beaverton OR 97006

Dear Superintendent Colonna:
I was troubled to read yesterday about the reassignment of student teacher Seth Stambaugh after he responded honestly to a child’s question about his marital status and admitted that he was gay.

I attended Beaverton School District schools myself for seven years, and my sister graduated from Aloha High School. My mother was trained as a teacher and many of her friends taught or administrated in the Beaverton district. I care deeply about the district, and I was very disappointed to find out that the district in this case was Beaverton.

I know that there is more pressure on public schools now than ever. It must be tempting in a case like Mr. Stambaugh’s to assuage a parent’s concerns, especially when Mr. Stambaugh is only a student teacher, not an employee. But I would urge you to overturn the decision in this case, or at least formulate a new policy that would protect other gay teachers from this situation: from being forced to deny who they are or lose their jobs.

What Mr. Stambaugh said was not “inappropriate.” We allow, if not expect, heterosexual teachers to talk about their personal lives. I could probably tell you the marital status of each homeroom teacher who taught me in Beaverton School District elementary schools. By making the honest answer to a child’s question about Mr. Stambaugh’s marital status “inappropriate,” the District is supporting a narrow view of homosexual citizens, one that says everything they do is “sexual”. If there’s something inherently inappropriate about disclosing your marital status, then why were my BSD teachers overwhelmingly “Miss” and “Mrs.” rather than “Ms.”?

By dignifying this parent’s concerns and reassigning Mr. Stambaugh, the district is sending a clear message. That message is that homosexuals do not belong in school, that their very identity is inappropriate. This message is not only being sent to Mr. Stambaugh, to the parents and community: it is being sent to the children. Believe me, they will understand. And when some of those children realize that they themselves are gay or bisexual, they will remember.

In the light of America’s ongoing epidemic of anti-gay bullying and suicides by gay students, perhaps the Beaverton School District should reassess its policies about the discussion or avowal of homosexual identity. Perhaps Beaverton School District students would be better off knowing that gay children and teenagers don’t disappear, or have to hide, or have to leave the public sphere because they are inherently “inappropriate.” I think they could only benefit from knowing such students can grow up into public-spirited, well educated, unashamed adults like Mr. Stambaugh.


Felicity Shoulders
Former student of Elmonica and Errol Hassell Elementary Schools and Mountain View Intermediate

On making a difference

Monday October 04, 2010 @ 05:15 PM (UTC)

I tweeted yesterday about a student teacher being reassigned for admitting he’s gay. It’s a story that came to my attention through my RSS reader but, sadly, is local: the district where this student teacher was originally assigned is the one where I went to elementary school.

I wrote a letter yesterday, planning to send it to the Superintendent and post it here, but an attack of cynicism shook that intention. There’s a lot of easy, feel-good (re)activism that goes on here on the interwebs. You submit your name for an online petition, retweet something, and ta-da! You are an activist! Writing one letter is sort of the same thing: drive-by activism. It’s shallow, brief, and perhaps accomplishes little but puffing up the letter-writer. Some might say one person picking up a pebble, repeated many times, will move a mountain; but it’s easier to find historical examples of dedicated mountain-movers pushing boulders over years and decades.

But on the other hand, this news story isn’t coming from another state or another country, the vast hinterlands of Elsewhere that filter through webpages and RSS feeds into our consciousness. This is where I grew up. This district, thanks to the execrable Measure 5 (which my family campaigned against while I was matriculating in that school district, and which is why I ultimately left), is underwritten by Portland’s tax dollar as well as Beaverton’s.

I’m not endorsing a proximal approach to morality and politics in general, since all too often that means a cozy sort of privileged insulation. But in this case I think it’s reasonable: perhaps I can’t make a difference in every case of homophobic discrimination in the world, or even in America, without devoting my life to it. But this is my neighborhood, this is my home. If I don’t speak out, I’m letting this be part of my home without protest: my silence says this discrimination is acceptable. (Just like not voting at all is an extra-effective way of voting down taxes and ruining our schools! That’s a little Measure 47 joke for the locals.)

Perhaps I look a little foolish, and perhaps I’m an armchair activist. But I’m printing out my letter, and I’ll post it here tomorrow. Because this is where I live, and because LGBT people live here too.

A genealogy of sneezes

Saturday October 02, 2010 @ 08:43 PM (UTC)

I’ve been thinking about sneezing lately. Mostly because I’ve been sneezing so much today I can barely finish a sentence. Either our landlords’ bamboo only flowers every seven years and gives me seven years’ worth of pollen allergies, or crawling out of my comfortable hobbit hole to attend social functions has given me a cold.

Anyhow, this sneezing has made me reflect. I myself have what I jokingly term the Atomic Sneeze (best restrained with ruby quartz face masks, à la Cyclops). It is extremely loud, and my poor sensitive-eared companion Ryan complains bitterly about it. (He kept covering his ears when we watched TV tonight, and eventually I saw him building acoustic barriers out of sweatshirt.) I keep telling him it could be even worse, and my sister’s sneeze is proof. Of course, since she isn’t allergic to everything on Earth except water and mold, few witnesses can back me up on this. My paternal grandfather’s sneeze was even more prodigious than my sister’s and mine, and my usual joke is that if he sneezed like that while he was in the Army, his comrades probably hit the deck.

Of course, it could be even worse: on my maternal side, my relatives seem to sneeze in consistent numbers. My grandma sneezes in the same pattern every time — I think it’s five sneezes? Of course, they’re such cute little noises that they’re quieter than a cat sneezing. Other family members appear to sneeze in threes, et cetera. I think Ryan should just be glad the two traits haven’t been mixed, because even a double-barrel of this noise could destroy our block, and five at a time would doom the entire city. Or at least give me whiplash.

Peaches and Cream Pause

Tuesday September 28, 2010 @ 04:11 PM (UTC)

I forgot to show you guys this pie I made. Look, a pie!

Peaches and Cream Pie
Peaches and Cream Pie

As usual, this pie is from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie. I made it with a mix of white and gold peaches. Unlike many of the pies I make from that book, it was rather easy. Unlike most of the pies I make, I didn’t get to taste it: the recipient ate it too fast. From this and other indications, I conclude that it was good!

If you missed “Conditional Love” when it appeared in January’s Asimov’s Science Fiction, you will have another chance! I found out today that Escape Pod bought my story!

I’ve been listening to Escape Pod for a while (although my reluctance to take walks whilst the daystar is holding its cruel summer sway has led to a podcast backlog) and it is a consistently excellent podcast. I am extremely glad to have my story there, and I look forward to hearing what they do with it!

How do you say "Conditional Love" in Polish?

Wednesday September 15, 2010 @ 04:31 PM (UTC)

I should find out in December, when my story will be reprinted in Poland’s anthology Kroki w nieznane (Steps Into the Unknown), edited by Mirosław Obarski.

This will be my second translation overall, and the first time one of my stories has been invited to a reprint anthology in any language. I’m very pleased, especially because the anthology has an interesting background and a history of very high-powered authors in its pages.

I’m so happy to see my stories travel around the world!


Saturday September 04, 2010 @ 11:19 PM (UTC)

In case any particularly sensitive information-brains have noticed a downtick in my posting rate, I thought I’d let the blog readership know I’ve been called out of town. Back to Grants Pass, in fact. Nothing serious, but I’m far, far off my normal routine and haven’t been working down the list of blog topics upon which I am burning to opine.

I may be moved to rant about the amount of unwanted junk mail my grandma gets from a political party she abandoned twenty years ago, but that wasn’t previously on the topic list!

(And for those of you who are also Twitter readers: I shall try not to tweet about Scrabble too much. Really, I shall be trying. Even if you can’t tell.)

The October/November double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction has been out to subscribers for a few weeks, and now it is available at bookstores and newsstands around the United States! My story “The Termite Queen of Tallulah County” appears in this issue, as well as ten other stories, novelettes and novellas from authors listed here.

Magazine cover with a NASA photo of the Witch Head Nebula

Getting a paper copy: Traditional newsstands often carry Asimov’s. Many Barnes & Noble and Borders locations carry Asimov’s, but it’s best to call ahead if you’ve not seen it at that particular store before.

Portlanders allergic to big-box stores can head down to Rich’s Cigar Store, which carries Asimov’s in their extensive magazine collection. The main store on SW Alder has the most copies. Also, the main store will ship magazines to out-of-town customers — call them up!

Getting a digital copy: This issue is available digitally from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. I’ll update this post when it comes out from Fictionwise and the Sony eBook store!

Many thanks to all who’ve expressed interest in this story, and to my early readers who helped it take form. Also, thanks to my grandma, for having termite trouble!

Update, 9/12/2010: The Sony eBook store now has October/November’s issue available.

Update, 9/17/2010: Fictionwise has October/November available in several digital formats as well.

Fantasy trope: the possessing progenitor

Monday August 30, 2010 @ 02:25 PM (UTC)

This post contains a slight spoiler for Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio. If you haven’t already read this webcomic, press that link (it’ll take you to the beginning) and do. I’ll wait. Girl Genius was steampunk before steampunk sold out!

This post also contains a spoiler for the Mage Wind Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. But if you were going to read that, you probably already have.

Oh, and a wee spoiler for Buffy Season 1.

I hereby predict this post’s length will only exceed its spoiler warnings’ by a small margin.

I was reading the latest installment of Girl Genius when it struck me that one plot point in that fine comic is familiar from another story: the evil sorcerous (wyrd scientist?) ancestor who can possess his or her present-day progeny. This was used to great effect in Mercedes Lackey’s Mage Wind trilogy. When the good guys and I found out that the evil mage we were up against had slain the Last (and most powerful) Herald-Mage in a previous incarnation, we thought all was lost. It was a pretty effective way of increasing the creep-factor on an already very creepy foe. In Girl Genius it operates a little differently and over only one generation, but it’s the same general idea. In Buffy, too, a witchly mama did once switch bodies with her child.

I wonder if I’m overlooking (or haven’t read) other examples of this trope in fantasy. In sci-fi, I think the equivalent would be making clones of yourself in order to prolong your life, whatever the clones think — which has definitely been done. I think the fantasy version is more intriguing, and here’s why:

It’s a pop-psych truism that people fear becoming their parents. This trope hooks right into that fear, as well as another potentially unhealthy dynamic: the parents that want their children to be carbon-copies of them. Sure, it’s icky that your pediatric neurosurgeon dad wants you to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. But it would be even ickier if he wanted to steal your body and do his own pediatric neurosurgery with it, destroying or sidelining your spirit and desires, robbing you of your free will and your natural human span. (This is the subtext that the Buffy episode makes into text.)

As if that weren’t enough psychoanalytic reason for this trope to send a shiver up the fantasy fan’s spine, the multi-generational version offers a healthy dollop of the “sins of the father” thing that’s so popular in Judeo-Christian circles. Sure, as people are so fond of pointing out, they didn’t commit genocide, or enslave anyone, or cut down the oak forests of Ireland, or what-have-you. In a fantasy setting, however, your link with those pasts are not theoretical. In any world with sympathetic magic, blood does tell.

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