On Specialist Knowledge

Some years ago, a priest who was teaching a class I was auditing sat down with me to teach me how to chant a collect. (A collect — accent on the first syllable because it is a noun — is a prayer said by an officiant on a specific occasion to “collect” the prayerful intentions of the whole gathering. It has three main parts: it names God in a specific way, asks for a blessing in keeping with that name, and finishes with a doxology. I digress, but this will be useful in a moment.) The lesson didn’t last very long, because she discovered that I already knew where to put which cantilations. “It’s a grammar,” I said.

But here’s the thing. I knew how to chant a collect because I had been listening to priests who knew what they were doing chant collects year in and year out till I picked up the grammar by instinct. I still don’t know what that grammar is, diagramatically. I have the knowledge-by-acquaintance of how to chant a collect; I don’t have the specialist knowledge of how these cantilation structures work.

In my aside above about the definition of a collect, I mentioned the emphasis on the first syllable “because it is a noun.” Until someone on social media mentioned this rule in passing, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that in English nouns that double as verbs, the accent goes on the first syllable for the noun form and the second syllable for the verb form — so a collect is a prayer that collects; a record is what results when you record something, and so on. Do we need to know this information? No, but somebody should know it. That context is meaningful, and may at times be crucial.

On the other hand, there was the time when I was six and an instructor was trying to teach me how to ski down a slope. “Put your weight on one foot,” she said, and I tried to put one ski on top of the other. “No, it’s more like leaning,” she corrected, and I almost fell over. It wasn’t till a few weeks later, when I was playing and thinking about something completely different, that her meaning clicked and I said, “Ohhhh!” I didn’t have the experiential knowledge needed to grasp the special skill she was teaching me. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory of purposely shifting all my weight to one hip, that poised flex of the bearing knee, that sweet spot of placement for my center of gravity (what’s that?).

Many times, we pick up knowledge by experience and we don’t know what we know until we are presented with specialist knowledge. We have to make a successful handshake for the two knowledges to integrate, and sometimes that’s a real challenge.

Such a challenge came up for me last night when Adam Neely’s latest video dropped. I’ll wait here while you watch it. It’s worth all 27 minutes.

Yes, it’s about Céline Dion; yes, it’s about a power ballad I always thought cheesy — though thanks to Adam Neely I am now aware that it’s a deliberate quotation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. So that’s no wonder because, Unpopular Opinion time, I think Rachmaninoff and a lot of the other Later Romantics are cloyingly overwrought. But that doesn’t matter, because Adam Neely’s actual topic is fascinating: it’s an exploded diagram of the aural and emotional effects of a key change on a sustained note.

As someone who plays music as a craft but is not a practitioner of it as an art, I can appreciate the specialist knowledge Neely brings here, and I can even bring to bear my own experience of feeling myself in or out of tune with the ensemble when playing the flute, or the experience of blending when using my voice (I’m told I blend well, but I don’t get much of a chance to practice these days). I have the ghostly memory of what it means to sustain a note and feel the context change around it so completely that I have to hold up against a chill. I know what it’s like to try and sing without succumbing to the emotional power of the music. But even with all that experience, I still had to reverse the video three or four times in places and go, “Okay, Adam, run that by me again.”

It gives me a renewed appreciation for specialist knowledge.

But while it’s true that we don’t know what we know, we also don’t know what we don’t know. This is the basis of what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is how you get assholes convinced they are experts pontificating about shit they clearly know very little about. A friend recently sent me this article about the interpersonal pitfalls of encountering such people when you have specialist knowledge. When people experience a missed handshake between their experience and specialist information, it can read to their brains like an actual threat. The experience of being wrong can be felt as a kind of death, and the person inflicting that experience becomes a killer.

I don’t have to elaborate, do I, about how we’re seeing this aggression toward “experts” in the public square, to the point where “science” itself is a loaded catchall term for any situation in which we don’t put up with someone talking out of their ass? Okay. Let’s skip to what I said to my friend M who sent me that article.

What I said was, “I think women experts actually go through those stages [that Venkatesh Rao talks about] in reverse. We doubt ourselves; then we try to help; then we are reduced to manipulating people; then we wash our hands of it.” Who the expert is makes a vast amount of difference to the level of threat people feel when they encounter that uncanny valley between what they know and what they don’t know. I don’t think it’s an accident that expertise itself is being disparaged at a time when women and minorities are completing post-secondary educations at unprecedented levels.

Worse, post-secondary education has become inextricably tied up with class, so that we are all too likely to see someone with a college degree as someone who was able to complete a class gatekeeping ritual where others could not. The degree, and the jargon they pick up getting it, has no other meaning than that.

Yet this can’t be entirely true, or else Adam Neely wouldn’t have thousands of people watching (and reversing to rewatch) his explanations of music theory every time he drops a new video. It helps that Neely’s not threatening: he’s a cute young white guy with a Baptist haircut (an aesthetic I happen to like, so I’m not disparaging him here), operating on a social media platform. He’s clearly leaning in to all these advantages for his living; and why not, if it results in thousands of folks having fun while learning about music theory?

Step one, getting the expertise, is difficult enough. Step two, making use of it for the public good, is often dependent on whether we are the kind of person others want to recognize as an expert, and is therefore not necessarily within our control. But when we succeed, it’s nearly always because of a personal encounter: a priest teaching a theology student, or a ski instructor helping a six-year-old negotiate a slope. Even a one-way encounter on social media is still a place where one person (me) on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic can navigate that uncanny valley between what she knows and what she can’t yet grasp.

I don’t think that if we are an expert in something that it obliges us to try to reduce people’s threat level in any given encounter. But it seems to me that a reduced threat level is part of the exploded diagram of a successful encounter between someone’s experience and specialist knowledge, whether that’s within our reach or not. And I don’t blame people for washing their hands of some folks for whom, clearly, the least scintilla of acknowledgment is a crucifixion. Some of these folks are just going to have to go through some things.

I guess my takeaway this morning is that we need specialist knowledge, and we need people who are practitioners of it, and we need those handshake moments without which we cannot integrate our lives as we’ve lived them so far with what comes next. It’s an uncanny valley, and the tone colors are amazing. Meet me here.

Announcing: Morning Lights

Welp, spring is creeping up on us and wriggling its little butt, ready to pounce. The elms in my neighborhood are plumping up to bloom and I have laid in a stock of Flonase for the season. I haven’t had any blog-post-sized things to say recently, just plugging away at work and words by turns.

But today I do have an announcement. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, I’ve been posting morning photos that I take while my tea is steeping — mostly of things in my apartment or the views from my window, but spring is likely to change how much I’m outside beyond trash day. A friend remarked that she found comfort and hospitality in the photos I shared, and that clarified a thought that I’d been having for a while. Which is that I have felt very much the loss of being able to practice hospitality, both in my physical space and my mental working space.

So I have started a “newsletter,” which sounds a lot more portentous than what it is: just a daily note, with my favorite of the morning’s pics, and a snippet of thought with a link, a poem, or a piece of music. When I have long-form blog posts here, I will link them out, as well as any author news that comes down the pipeline. It’s simple, it’s free, and it’s not subject to any goddamn rent-seeking algorithms you don’t have to wait for your social media feed to show it to you. You can sign up at the landing page here, or using the form I have embedded in the sidebar. It’s an experiment, so I’m sure this little project will evolve with time.

As Gregor Vorbarra likes to say: let’s see what happens.

Ryswyck-verse ephemera

With this site back online and transitioning to a more robust server, I’m getting back into the swing of blogging with a dispatch update on the word trenches along this front. Regrettably, it turns out Pandemic Brain is not terribly conducive to writerly output. Fortunately, the solstice is approaching, and I’ve made use of some of this year, if not to put pixels on the page, at least to make notes on structure and dialogue.

The results of collecting up notes, quotes, and dialogue from wherever I had stuck them. My process is very lo-tech.

And, I have put a few pixels on the page — in the form of a couple loose scenes out of order which I will either use when I get there or cannibalize for other uses.

Plus there have been some very useful meta conversations with my betas the past several months, which I may attempt to synthesize in future posts; for the moment, here’s a snippet.

Me: Meanwhile I've found my metaphor for the plot of TLT
Erica: :)
Me: it's a textile one
Me: everyone has vital information that can darn the fabric of peace, and Speir is elected to be the needle
Me: but she has to figure that out first
Erica: nice
Me: I think I'm going to indulge nearly all of my crackalicious ideas, too
Erica: I mean why not
Me: exactly

Then follows some of the crackalicious ideas, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves all hell breaking loose in a ballroom, and this anticipated bit of dialogue:

"Speir, don't -- Speir! Sacred fucking lights," said Selkirk.

(The good thing about conducting most interactions with my betas over IM is that I have a record of things I am otherwise likely to forget. This pandemic situation has left me with the memory of a goddamn goldfish.)

All in all, I did what I could with a difficult year, and not only did I get Household Lights out, I got a few other things done as well. Next goal: get back on track marketing-wise. If there are opps for virtual interviews or panels, I want to find them.

And finally, I made another soothing sound generator, named for Arisail, Douglas’s home district. Give it a listen and enjoy the calm!

This ain’t your usual Stadium Rock

According to Mark Polizzotti, when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you,” his immediate translators did not do the Russian phrase any favors. Rather than issuing a direct threat, Polizzotti says, Khrushchev was saying that they would survive, outlast, be vindicated by the eventual demise of, the West. Not that anyone in the West cared for nuance at the time; believing your enemy to be wholly malevolent is a time-honored tradition in wars both cold and hot.

It’s possible Khrushchev knew this and didn’t feel like he had much to lose no matter how the phrase was translated. If so, I get the sentiment.

This morning I went down to the absentee polling place set up by my local election authority and banked my vote. I don’t usually vote absentee, though if I lived in a state with proper early voting I would certainly do that — but I wanted to get the basics out of the way ASAP. Now to the next thing: getting everyone I know and care about to do the same thing however they may.

Just do it. Just vote, as soon as you can. Why? Because the only possible answer to this revanchist zombie confederacy of misogynists, white supremacists, and white-collar thieves is to bury. them.

Bury them in an avalanche of votes, everywhere. Everywhere. You don’t live in a swing state? I don’t either. I don’t care. Bury them. You didn’t begin with wanting an ideologically unexciting septuagenarian white man at the top of your side of the ticket? I didn’t either. I don’t care. Bury them.

And if you’re already on the same page with me, I have an offer to make.

For at least fifteen years I’ve been following journalist Al Giordano for my electoral politics news. And for the last five years or so I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter, América, which he puts out on a semi-regular basis. He’s the most level-headed, light-hearted source of politics news in this country (and out of it). And when someone comes to him freaking out — and let’s be real, there’s plenty to freak out about — his answer is invariably, What are you doing about it?

Today, this is what I’m doing about it: I’m offering to subscribe an impecunious fellow-traveler to a year’s worth of Al’s América newsletter. The subscription fee is an $80 contribution to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which trains journalists and community organizers for effective work on the ground where they live. Besides the newsletter, subscribers get full access to the Fund’s website, Organize and Win — and thereby to a whole community of ordinary folks across the country and overseas who are doing things, however and wherever they can, to make a difference. This is good value even in a year that is not frickin’ 2020.

It so happens that I have $80 right now, and I want to subscribe someone who doesn’t to a gold mine of good reporting. If you have $80, you should subscribe too. The pandemic has hit everybody in the pocketbook, some harder than others, and the Fund for Authentic Journalism like many nonprofits depends on donations and subscriptions for its bread and butter. So if you would like this subscription and need the scholarship, don’t be shy, drop me a line by email, comment, or social media message, and I will give your preferred email address to Al for the subscription rolls with my donation. You won’t be sorry!

And, in closing: VOTE.

Review: Alexandra Rowland, A Conspiracy of Truths

I really thought I was going to like this.

I can’t remember how A Conspiracy of Truths landed on my TBR pile — possibly through my online trivia league’s recent SFF trivia-fest — but it looked like my jam, to the hilt. In any case, a few months ago I went through the old TBR pile looking for a choice for book club, and read the opening sampled on Amazon, and thought: well, it’s more than 400 pages, but it’s got a snappy voice and a cantankerous POV character who’s in a bit of a pickle. Sold!

Incautiously, I announced it as my book club choice before reading it.

As it turned out, not even the most catholic-minded, voracious reader in my group finished it. I finished it for two reasons: 1) I had to lead the book-club discussion, and 2) I felt a driving need to be absolutely certain this story didn’t unravel to something I would have been sorry to miss.

Spoiler: it didn’t.

I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because, well, it’s better-written than Jodi Taylor’s One Damned Thing After Another and I gave three stars to it. But whereas I finished Taylor’s book thinking: “Well, that was complete junk food, but I had fun consuming it,” I finished this book thinking I’d just read a Serious Tale that actually roused me to resentment.

This takes some doing. My approach to reading is generally the Golden Rule approach: I do unto the author as I would have them do unto me. So when I pick up a book, I give it all the generous credulity at my disposal, which often takes little effort, and save the critical eye for looking back from the end. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I didn’t like the book until like two days after I finish it.

But here’s the premise of this book. (Spoilers follow.) An old wanderer from a long tradition of powerful storytellers enters (with an apprentice) a cold, backward, Slavic-coded country and gets arrested for witchcraft, which makes him by their laws an enemy of the state. He uses the tales he tells from his jail cell to turn his imprisonment to his advantage in a complicated intrigue. Scheherazade meets The Thief — right?

Nope. Presented with what is a legitimate threat to his life and freedom (and with the knowledge that a similar fate came to someone he knew as a friend), the nameless Chant emulates the capricious, sadistic god his storyteller forebears once worshiped, and plays the women leaders of the country against one another, with the express purpose of destroying the entire country and having another, nameless, offstage friend of his shovel its remains into the sea with her army. So…technically…these folks were right on the money: he is an enemy of the state.

Every time a character started to interest me, Chant would get her killed. And yes, the characters were interesting, in a Gormenghasty-grotesque kind of way. The only character I actually liked was the apprentice, and Chant’s contempt for him was practically a parody of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward Watson: Ylfing is valuable only because Chant needs him, and Chant only needs him because he can’t find anyone better.

The companion book to this story, A Choir of Lies, is supposedly about Ylfing when he ascends to Chanthood, and tries to handle another sticky situation differently than his master. The blurb suggests that the credulity and open-heartedness of the young man that was the only bright spot in this book will not be enough to sustain him through whatever difficulties arise. I can’t say that’s much of a temptation to read it.

This is what I want in a story billed as a “conspiracy”: I want people to connect, to recognize one another’s invaluable gifts, to take a difficult situation and turn it inside out (if they’re the conspirators), or to foil the nefarious plot (if they’re the protectors of the current order). Nothing like this happens in A Conspiracy of Truths; people simply use one another all the way to destruction. The only consistent moral imperative of this story from first to last is how justified Chant is in his destructive machinations. It grew so unpleasant I started looking for ways to read him as an unreliable narrator; but the story never escapes his grip for a moment, so there was no way of finding out that Chant’s reality isn’t the centered and approved reality that the author wants to give me.

My voracious-reader friend, doing her due diligence in lieu of finishing this book, found this interview with the author about the subgenre of “hopepunk” — a term which I did not realize Rowland had coined. I was glad to read a description of hopepunk from the source, as it were, because I have never found the concept useful or appealing, despite approving thoroughly of all its component parts. Hopepunk — a righteous fury against bad systems coupled with an affirmation and triumph of the underdogs — seems to be what A Conspiracy of Truths is aiming at.

This is the theory. But in practice, my response to both the concept and this book can be summed up with one bewildered, annoyed sentence: “Yes, but not like that.”

The ticks of racism: a white person addresses whites

Look, we’ve been over this. I have been over this, in this blog, which is not even my political venue of choice. This blog is supposed to be a place for my own benign commentary on writing, my own and other people’s; remember “benign commentary?” To me it’s like one of those spiders you fit into the center of a 45 record so you could play it on a 78 turntable. I don’t know how to “benign commentary” anymore. All I know is I have to find a way to be in this world so that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer won’t be ashamed of me in that cloud of witnesses that unwarrantably swells now day by day.

So. If you are white and reading this, know that what Black voices are saying right now is more important than this. I’ll put a representative sample from my milieu here. If you haven’t read it yet, do that first.

To be quite honest: I don’t fucking know why it is not self-evident to everyone that Black faces are the Image of God — i.e. fully representative of humanity at its pinnacle, as any other human would be; and possessed of the right to exist untrammeled, as any other human would be. If you feel the urge to quibble with that, to say it doesn’t apply to the hellscape we’re living in, you must not think it’s self-evident and I refer you back to the beginning of this paragraph. The rest of this writing assumes that self-evidency.

But to be even more honest: it’s not quite true. I have an idea why it’s not self-evident to a startlingly large percentage of my fellow white folks. Because here’s another truth: treating people badly makes us hate them more. We think it’s the other way around. We think that hurting or kicking or insulting or mistreating someone discharges hate and ill-will towards them, that if we can act upon that anger and ill-will then we will be rid of its corrosive effects. We will have closure if we can punish just the right amount. We will be able to think well of someone once they have accepted whatever we wish to heap upon their head.

The hardest sin to forgive another person is the sin committed by ourselves against them.

And we white people know damn good and well that we have committed a vast cataract of sins against people of color who ought to be our fellow citizens. Collectively and individually we have committed them. With mens rea and without. And just as I can’t shop for basic groceries without giving my dollars to some gross corporation, I can’t live my life without benefiting, right now, from the practical effects of that cataract of sins.

Other people are saying better than I what can and should be done about structural racism. What I have to say here is about relational racism. I don’t have jack to say to my fellow white people about what our grandfathers did or didn’t do. They did it, or they didn’t do it; who cares. I’m talking about what happens in your and my everyday life, when someone, Black or not, calls you out for something you did or said. How can you, how can I, bear what seems like an attack on our stable self-identity as a nice person who is not A Racist??

I came up with this metaphor in a less fraught hour, so it may or may not play. I think of racism as I think about ticks. Anybody can get a tick on them, anybody. In a bad tick year, you don’t even have to go into the woods; sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the house, especially if a pet or person brings them in.

Ticks are just ticks. They are just pests. But it doesn’t pay to be complacent about them, because: they also carry diseases.

So when someone says, “You have a tick on you,” do you say: “I most certainly do not! I am not the kind of person who gets ticks on them. I never even go to the woods. How dare you!” Well, do you?

Historically speaking, when I’ve been told I have a tick on me, what I do is: I whimper piteously and beg them to take it off, and dispose of it so I don’t have to look at it.

But here’s the thing. Nobody is obligated to pick off your tick. You would hardly collar some random member of the public, drop your drawers, and ask them to remove a tick from your posterior. No, you ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of this intimate task. And even they are allowed to say, “Ugh, no thanks. Ask someone else.”

A day may come when you and nobody but you is available to remove the tick. And you may feel very sorry for yourself in the process. But that’s between you and yourself. Open your private bullet journal and commemorate the occasion:

  • Today, 2 June 2020: I removed a tick by myself. It sucked, but the tick is gone. Yay!
  • Tomorrow, 3 June 2020: make appointment with doctor to make sure I’m not infected.

People who do not attend to their ticks can get so infected that they no longer think they are sick, and eventually become a public health hazard.

Apparently quite a lot of people have decided to become a public health hazard. I guess they thought the coronavirus was fucking lonely or something.

This little trip down analogy lane has been half facetious, but I’m serious about one thing. If it matters to someone you don’t even know that you put on a mask, then it matters to someone you don’t even know if you check for the ticks of racism.

Because when it comes to bad tick years, this is Annus Horribilis.

Solaces

Let’s be real: in terms of mental health, I’m often not playing with a full deck right now. Sometimes, I’m not even playing with half a deck. I have a three. And if you get that reference, let me invite you to my Zoom happy hour.

Still life with solitary lilac.

I mean, I’m one of the lucky ones. I can work from home, I have my own sanctuary, I have my cat and my Netflix Party and my book club group text and a jumbo bottle of Beefeaters. But luck, in these circumstances, is definitely a relative term. In normal circs, a four-day panic attack is not the thin end of the suffering wedge, but it is now — and I can’t even tell myself that there’s no grounds for being worried and upset. Nope, I said, I need to call my doctor and tell her I need either an industrial-size Xanax or my own personal pulse oximeter. Or possibly both.

Nevertheless, I persist. And fait accompli still applies. There’s room even in this miasmic situation — perhaps especially in this misasmic situation — for reality and humor and wry compassion for self and everyone else.

So I share a couple of things that have brought me solace or cracked me open or both.

Music in particular has been a source of catharsis. I might have mentioned here my love of Widor’s Toccata for organ, and how I longed to finagle some way of getting someone to play it on Kauffman Center’s organ some Symphony night. So I was scrolling through FB yesterday and saw this — and when I unmuted it I instantly burst into sobs.

(I’d embed it but FB and WP are not playing nice.)

It wasn’t even the first time that week that music had got to me like that. We haven’t had much in the way of spring thunderstorms yet, but it rained heavily the other day and so I broke out the Dona nobis pacem from the Bach Mass, which I always play at high volume during the first good storm of the year.

It undid me completely.

It strikes me that crying at beautiful music at a time like this is an eminently sane thing to do, so I embrace it. But it’s not the only sane thing. On the advice of my coach I’ve also embraced taking my mask and saber out to the backyard and practicing cuts and lunges. It makes my whole body feel lived-in and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I guess it’d take a fencing coach to think of something so obvious to suggest. I envy my friends with gardens; but I reckon there are plenty of people who envy me my saber drills.

Solace is richer if you can share it. And if you can’t share it, I suppose the next best thing would be to enjoy it in honor of those who are in need of it. Good will is a paltry gift, but in times like these we can see the difference between good will and nothing.

Take care. Be well. May you make a good offering.

The vicarious synapse

Despite the fact that, if such a thing were possible, I am even less capable of sustained coherence than I was a month ago, I figured I had better post some proof of life. I mean, Facebook people are already getting cat pictures from the home office and reposted memes and the like, so I’m not terribly concerned that no one knows I’m alive if I don’t post here; but still.

Today in my Lenten meditation booklet (“Lent: It’s Not Rocket Science,” courtesy of Forward Movement a couple years back), Bishop McKnisely reflects on the hidden reality that atoms are largely composed of empty space, and concludes that he is very thankful for our sense of being jumbled up and close together, so that we can feel connected despite being so insignificant in the universe. Ha ha. Today makes three weeks since I have gone into pandemic seclusion, and never have I felt more atomic. I’m one of the lucky ones: I can work from home, I have plenty of toilet paper, and I have little need to go outdoors. Most of my relationships were already conducted in pixels, the only human touch I was likely to share week to week was passing the peace at church, and I already had a home office routine for days when I didn’t commute in. Nothing’s changed, right?

Wrong. It’s fuckin’ weird, is what it is. The space between me, the atom’s nucleus, and the electrons by which I contact the world is uncannily apparent: like when you have an inflamed organ in the gut — it doesn’t hurt exactly, but you’re not supposed to know it’s there. The whole is dispelled; everything is reduced to the sum of its parts.

More than once over a Zoom meetup, someone has remarked that it’s a balm to at least see everybody even if it’s just over a screen. But although I’m very glad of the chance to talk to people, I don’t know that it makes me feel more connected — or less, for that matter. For one thing, it’s even easier for my voice to get lost in the shuffle than it is in person; a couple of times I’ve just given up trying to say something and just let the interruptions roll on like a tide. Worse, I’ve had the dreadful experience of actually getting the virtual floor and then feeling my brain lock up in a full-on fit of aphasia. All in all…I’m not really a fan.

Nevertheless, I’m toying with the idea of conducting a Tenebrae service over Zoom (or whatever) next week; if there were any liturgy designed for this #MOOD, Tenebrae is it. The only real question in my mind is how public I should try to make it.

Meanwhile, on the writing front, I have achieved some edits on Household Lights, commissioned cover art, and hope to have it up for preorder soon. Household Lights, I find on my reread, is full of the kind of things we can’t have right now: cross-country train trips, in-person meetings, co-sleeping with friends, bonfire dances, maternal care in moments of pain and need, and Ryswyck’s daily morning silence with three hundred people all breathing together in the arena. I wasn’t expecting to market this book as an immediate and expedient salve of vicarious comforts, but here we are.

At the moment, though, it’s not vicarious comforts that are getting me through this time of awareness that every person I love in the whole world is someone I have to worry about. It’s more the little, funny things that address this absurd situation head-on that comfort me. So I leave you with one of them: Here is John Finnemore with a series of short videos as Arthur Shappey, his character from Cabin Pressure — “Cabin Fever.” This one is “Episode 1: Fitton”; closely followed by “Episode 2: Fitton,” “Episode 3: Fitton,” and so on. I think it’s probably still hilarious even if you don’t get all the Cabin Pressure references, but if you haven’t listened to the Cabin Pressure radio plays, well, you’re not going to get a better opportunity, are you?

Orbis Factor

I’ve been wanting to make a post for a couple of weeks now, but my ideas were all too inchoate to put hand to keys for. My thoughts are only barely starting to coalesce, but it’s time to take a stab at posting anyway. So here they are: beads on a string, notes in a mode.

To start with, this morning’s offering from the Lent Project included a chant from Ensemble Organum, a ninefold Kyrie Eleison that made me sit right up in the predawn dark and then seek it out to listen again. I’ve said before that the chants in my ‘verse owed something to plainchant from both western and eastern Christian traditions, but didn’t have an example to put forward. Now I do. Longform chants in the Ryswyck ‘verse have plumb notes and refrains, and there is usually a lead cantor for the verses while the assembled sing the response. This piece evokes the tone better than I could have hoped.

And then there’s the actual theme, which is appropriate not just for Lent but for this particular constellation of events and decisions and griefs on earth, for this exploded diagram of a theological moment:

Maker of the world, King eternal, 
Have mercy upon us.
O immense source of pity, 
Have mercy upon us.
Drive off all our evils, 
Have mercy upon us.
Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, 
Have mercy upon us.
Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, 
Have mercy upon us.
Keeping and confirming thy believers, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou and thy Father, an equal light, 
Have mercy upon us.
We know that God is one and three, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, 
Have mercy upon us.

Last night I showed up at fencing practice to discover that I needed to practice something new for the next tournament: refraining from the handshake at the end of a bout. I shouldn’t have been surprised; protocols for containing the spread of COVID-19 have been circulating in all the other circles, church and workplace, that I frequent. And invariably, the question gets asked: if we don’t shake hands to pass the peace, if we don’t shake hands to greet our colleagues at a conference, if we don’t shake hands to honor our opponent on the strip, what do we do instead? Elbow bumps? Hip checks? Toe touches?

My immediate instinct was to lay my open hand against my heart, as my characters do. And I reflected yesterday, both in a work meeting and at fencing club, on how hard I had had to work while writing to push aside the echo of clasps and handshakes for greetings in my own world, how (worldbuilding often works this way) I had speculated that maybe unchecked epidemics in my ‘verse during the bad times had given rise to the no-touch greetings I wanted to depict.

And lastly in my exploded diagram, I voted in my primary the other day. I don’t often address politics directly in this blog, in part because I prefer to do it elsewhere, and also in part because unlike when blogging was new and I was younger, I don’t assume that political opinions are necessarily significant just because I have them. But here again is another enharmonic between the tones of the world I didn’t make, and the one I did.

You may guess I am less than enthused about having our field of presidential candidates winnowed down to two septuagenarian white men, not when we had multiple viable alternatives on several axes of value. But that’s democracy for you. When the other party has ejected all its reasonable and/or honorable people, those reasonable and honorable people have to go somewhere, and there’s no use pining after a parliamentary system where you can put party bulkheads between the groups within a coalition. Nope, the coalition is calling from inside the house.

I particularly regret that Team Warren (i.e., me and others like me) was not able to successfully make the case for her to the African-American part of the coalition. By and large, they’ve clearly chosen their guy, and I’d rather they hadn’t, but I get it. I spent one evening five years ago in the company of some friends — all white women, all reliable Democratic voters who espoused progressive principles, all people who understand what the word intersectionality means — and someone brought up the topic of the protests in Ferguson: and the things that started coming out of people’s mouths utterly appalled me. But I doubt any Black person would be shocked. So unless you win enough time and produce enough solid, present-tense deliverables, a movement is not going to get traction with African-Americans if its prime selling point is that the White Left really really likes it, even if the policy promises are good, even if the candidate has an admirable voting record. I know, I know, people are not their demographics. But the demographics are their people. And every part of the coalition is our people. Obviously, I’ve discovered I can’t speak for the rest of the White Left, but I’m convinced that we owe the first gesture of respect for others’ insights, rather than demanding acknowledgment of ours out of the gate.

Warren’s period of silence between Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign gave me a chance to recover my own equilibrium. And the letter she sent her supporters underlined my admiration for her, rather than dissipating it. All of it was good, but this was what snared my attention:

Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.

If Barack Obama was a pastor, Elizabeth Warren is a paladin. What else would you expect of a candidate whose supporters took one of her quotes about fighting for the CFPB (“I want…” either a good agency, “or no agency at all and a lot of blood and teeth on the floor.”) and spontaneously brandished the slogan, “Blood and Teeth!

She’s got all kinds of plans for the symptoms, but her real lance is aimed at the disease: that complex of inequality, misogyny, the lust for domination, and fear that reached pandemic proportions long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. In that perspective, becoming POTUS was a modest aim.

And from my vantage, Warren’s campaign served as a laboratory for the counterpart of Ryswyckian principles of courtesy in the environment of middle-school meanness that infests our public discourse wherever it takes place. (But I was glad for the excuse to get off of Twitter again.) Would I have rather it prevailed? Of course. But the principle of “Smile. Bow. Hit them.” doesn’t promise victory. It only promises the chance to make a victory even of your deepest defeats.

We’re all still here. So I guess it worked.

So it’s back to persistence. I still want more people to read Ryswyck — it’s obviously becoming more relevant than I ever dreamed; or wanted, let’s be real — but even so, the persistence of dreaming and writing has freshly become an end in itself. I make the world, and the world makes me.

Kyrie eleison. Blood and teeth.

Advent calendar #19: Margaret Atwood

I still can’t bring myself to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because, well. I can observe plenty of nightmares going on round here without seeking the same out in my fiction. However: I know that Atwood is snarky and brilliant, so for today’s Advent window I give you a short essay of hers that I read 25 years ago and appreciate better now than I did when I was an undergraduate.

The Female Body, it’s called. (Honestly, “my topic feels like hell” should be a regular tag.)

Meanwhile, it’s the day’s deep midnight, and I’m looking forward to the crescendo again.