100 days later

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, known to us then in the US mostly as the untried people’s-choice president whom The Former Guy had tried to extort for manufactured dirt against Joe Biden (and escaped conviction in the Senate for it), took to social media with a firm reassurance:

One hundred days later, President Zelenskyy posted his latest nightly address thanking President Joe Biden for the US’s continued material support for Ukraine’s defense of their sovereignty:

Between Night One and Night One Hundred Zelenskyy was put through a public crucible of leadership. When the US offered to airlift him to safety, Zelenskyy’s retort — “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride” — signaled to us the quality of independence we’ve come to recognize as a Ukrainian passion; but it also signaled to Ukraine that unlike previous presidents, he wasn’t going to cut and run. It was time to stand and fight back. Ukraine has taken his cue, counted the cost, and decided it was worth paying.

The rest of us are still counting.

While we were counting, Ukrainians fought the might of Russia inch by inch away from Kyiv. The latest address above is recorded in the presidential palace proper, with the lights on: but this is recent. Most of Zelenskyy’s evening addresses were recorded in a bunker, in dim light, in moments snatched during his sleepless slog from emergency to emergency. Nor did he only speak to Ukraine. He gave address after address to every governing body within Zoom’s reach: in one early teleconference with EU leaders, he said, “This might be the last time you see me alive”; later, he crafted appeals to every country’s parliament, legislature, and council with analogies to their own history. But the core appeals to each were nearly identical.

He wanted the world to acknowledge, explicitly and on record, that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with the right to exist independently of Russia. And he wanted “ammunition”; weapons to fight Goliath off their homeland and put a stop to the indiscriminate carnage being inflicted on his people.

Goliath, meanwhile, was demonstrating that they were both inept and cruel in the prosecution of their illegal war. As the Ukrainians drove them back, they saw what Russia had left behind. Zelenskyy, visiting Bucha after its liberation, was captured on camera with his face an open depth of rage and grief.

I recommend this 60 Minutes interview with Zelenskyy for its portrait of the things I am talking about here. It’s the end that stayed with me: Scott Pelley finishes the interview with, “Mr. President, we wish you all the luck in the world.” Zelenskyy switches from Ukrainian to a halting English and says with a painful smile: “I need half of it. Even half would be enough.”

We wish you all the luck in the world.

I only need half.

Not too long after that, I downloaded the Duolingo app and started to learn Ukrainian. Going over these videos now, I can actually pick out words, though after only 44 days of the curriculum I’m not quite at the point of fully grasping everything that’s being said. This is a country that has a deep, mordantly funny, stubborn character. Ground between the millstones of empires for centuries like the wheat grown in their fields bound for parts elsewhere, they’ve been fighting for their independence (and their unity) for almost as long as we’ve had ours. They understand their own peril; they understand they are standing in the gap for everyone else’s democracy. I’m not sure we really understand either of those things, but I know whose example I want to follow.

This war isn’t new — Russia started the process in 2014 after Ukraine got fed up with Russia’s meddling and swept in a new government not beholden to Putin and his encroachments. There’s a picture somewhere of a fight that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament during these troubles; I thought it very quaint, then, to see political disagreements reduced to fisticuffs. I did not know it was the first manifestation of a malice that would finally show itself in our country with The Former Guy and the January 6 insurrection. Nobody died in the Verkhovna Rada as they did in our capital: but Ukrainians are certainly dying now. Our whole country has turned into Bleeding Kansas. The war isn’t new.

Zelenskyy was new, though. But one can only admire how quickly he understood his assignment. He became the avatar of his country to us, and a mirror for the Ukrainians themselves. He pushes Ukraine’s asks aggressively with one hand (“He has the list,” Zelenskyy said of Biden when Scott Pelley asked him what weapons he wanted sent), and dishes out sincere gratitude with the other:

He throws shade on Russia not as a slam line looking for applause, but as if he expects any Ukrainian sitting in his seat would employ the same devastating skill:

And I believe they would! After all, the Snake Island soldier’s defiance is now a Ukrainian postage stamp, and the Moscow — that very Russian warship he told to go fuck itself — has been promoted to submarine in the Black Sea fleet.

Zelenskyy knows how to use his art, too. Here he is (in a two-parter; do watch them both) juxtaposing the May 9 Victory Day with the slogan “Never Again”:

And the next day, rallying Ukraine to envision its future victory:

There is one benefit of war to set against its evils: it can be a rough but effective sieve for our priorities. And I think our first priority is to stop talking about, thinking about, and revolving about other people who are doing it wrong. They might be! Who cares? Find someone who’s doing it right, and imitate them. To the hilt.

This year I have resolved to say nothing about what is or isn’t being done in political circles if I do not have something I am doing to put next to it. Seriously, it just darkens counsel. I wonder what would happen if for 24 hours nobody in this country could post anything to social media, no “what he said!” or “can you believe this?” or anything. Would we be able to peer through the cloud of dust and see who we are?

Likewise, if your plans for Bleeding Kansas this year involve trying to make some individual or group feel ashamed of themselves for whatever they’re doing: you’re gonna need to make another plan. Like Russia at the Olympics, this year’s bad actors live in the conviction that shame is something that happens to other people. No plan depending on any of them having a change of heart or making an honest agreement is a plan that will work. Even those people who can be reached — is this really the best use of our time? I don’t think we have as much of that commodity as it seems. Be like Ukraine: surmount what you can, and when you can’t, trade space for time and fight smarter, not harder.

There are lots of op-eds proliferating in mainstream media right now, warning us that supporting Ukraine is going to get “complicated” and that we had better get used to the idea of letting Russia have its way at least in part if we want to save lives. Whose lives? Not the Ukrainians, a population destined for liquidation for the sin of refusing to think of themselves as “Little Russians.” They don’t want us to do their fighting for them. In all the ways that matter, they are doing our fighting for us.

I can think of lots of ways we could be less lost, less unfocused, than we are now. But I shudder to think of where we’d be without Ukraine, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, its willing avatar, to raise the standard.

Now the green blade riseth

The thing about the impossible, is that it continues being impossible right up until it isn’t anymore.

That goes for many kinds of things, and it cuts in more than one direction. But right now I’m mostly thinking about world events. There are tipping points accumulating in all sorts of places, and suddenly I don’t think we’re fighting a rearguard action against fascism, cruelty, and cynicism. I think we have a potential for a rout on our hands. But we have to build up the possible.

When an online friend asked his audience, “What do you think you can do, right now?” — he was crowdsourcing answers to get a full perspective on the current state of the possible. I thought of what another friend has been saying about the videos of songs and performances coming from within Ukraine and outside of it: that music is resistance. Every platoon has its ditty; every arena has its chant; every polity has its anthem, to be sung in times of joy and times of anger. Lift every voice and sing — or if you have to, lift every chair and swing!

So what I’m focusing on is art, as nourishment of the possible. I’m thinking of ways to mobilize the art at my hands — whether that’s buying it, playing it, displaying it, or writing it — to continue compiling substance toward that tipping point. And if this idea speaks to you, I encourage you to do it too. Or — if you have a different idea of how you would build up the possible: do that.

If this idea coalesces into something more organized, I’ll update here. Watch this space.

Fresh as the shriven snow

Happy Mardi Gras to all who celebrate, and may your Lent bring you a blessing. Lent, in its original incarnation, was the time set aside for those preparing for baptism into the Church; since I spent most of Epiphany season preparing for a medical procedure, Lent’s arrival doesn’t feel like an ambush to me this year. My house is clean, my larder stocked, I did my errands (carefully), avoided covid exposure, and took lots of “prehab” walks. Now the procedure is in the rearview and so far, the prep work has been paying off.

Something else is different about Lent this year: I’ve come out of the pandemic with a changed perspective. Not a change in beliefs or opinions, really — but a re-saturated perspective on what it means to take on penitence.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the first thing Dante is bid to do is wash his face with dew, reflecting a doctrine that we don’t really subscribe to anymore: the doctrine that the first duty of a penitent is to be cheerful. It’s always seemed so weird to me that the gospel for Ash Wednesday is the one from Matthew about not making a big production about it when you are fasting or giving alms — as we have ash crosses drawn on our foreheads and put the kneelers to extra use and play hymns in a minor key.

But shouldn’t we be sorry for our sins? I hear the reproach. Why, certainly — but isn’t it so relieving to get started tidying up, to begin pointing one’s feet toward home! Shouldn’t we remember that we are but dust? Yes, but why the long face about it? I just watched a TikTok video of a young Ukrainian girl demonstrating how to start, drive, and make off with a Russian tank. I bet she remembers she is but dust: and the video was funny as hell.

In a time when some people are demonstrating how unrepentantly wicked they’ve chosen to be, I think it is imperative that any penitence we undertake is purposeful, to the point, and above all cheerful. We are good. People are good. We might feel broken from time to time, but nobody is broken on a fundamental level. I escaped thinking that about myself, and I am determined to free the other prisoners.

Pancakes today, fasting tomorrow: and a smile for both.

Monday miscellany

First, a small gallery of recent photos:

I’ve been bitten by the Clutter Bug and have started systematically going through my house to clear off surfaces one by one. I hope to have reduced the surging piles of stuff in the next couple of weeks. So in a similar spirit of neatening, here are a couple links to things I have been enjoying during the time I neglected the blog.

If you have not already been following it, NASA and its peer institutions in Canada and Europe launched the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day. It has now been fully deployed and inserted into orbit around the Lagrange 2 gravity point, and is now in cooldown mode prior to starting its mission. You can keep track of Webb’s progress here.

My favorite Youtube fact purveyor did a recent roundup of the life of Mary Shelley on the Biographics channel, following one he did on Byron, my guilty favorite of the Romantics. Thanks to yet another video on his Geographics channel, we can thank Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer for the epic rain in Switzerland that stuck Byron, the Shelleys, and John Polidori indoors and forced them to come up with a couple little things like, you know, Frankenstein.

I attended a KC Symphony concert recently which included on the program Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by a young guest conductor who has a podcast on classical music, which I highly recommend, even if like me you haven’t always got the attention span for podcasts. You can find out how Shostakovich saved his life and the life of his family in Stalin’s regime by the writing of this symphony here.

And finally, a link to a website I intend to come back to and talk more about in future posts — A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: a youngish professor of Roman history comments on SFF media and books, among other things. I really want to write a full-length post on his series on The Fremen Mirage and the worldbuilding pitfalls it creates — because when do I not want to talk about worldbuilding? — so I’m leaving this link here to remind myself.

(Also, having read a good portion of the interesting articles on the site, I notice that our pedant has a Patreon, as so many folks do these days. Very enterprising, but then he’s very disciplined about posting weekly.)

And that’s the roundup for today.

Jane Eyre, trauma, and the writer’s id

So in my summer odyssey of brain fog, I became a bit of a Youtube junkie, because that was a relatively effort-free distraction from my back injury and its sequelae as well as my complete inability to make and carry out plans. (As any ADHD person knows, you have to make a plan to make a plan, so sometimes you’re just SOL on a bad brain day.) There, that should fill you, gentle reader, in on what was going on while I wasn’t blogging.

But, I’m back, with a whole list of Youtubers whose channels I’ve been enjoying, and today I’m linking a recent video by Dr. Octavia Cox, who does close readings of 18th and 19th century literature as a public service, and really, why more English majors don’t do this, I don’t know. Dr. Cox invites people to open discussion in the comments, but to be honest there’s no way I’m going to fit my ersatz Romanticist reax into a mere Youtube comment, so I’m blogging it instead. Plus, it has a bearing on the kind of writing talk I do here, so that’s where I’m going with this post.

You should really watch the video for the nuances — it’s only 20 minutes — but the gist is that a very celebrated passage in Jane Eyre, in which Jane-as-narrator castigates the cultural bonds that give women no scope for action and creativity, is bookended by her rather repressive methods as governess at the beginning, and the bitter laugh of Grace Poole (which is really Bertha Mason but Jane doesn’t know it yet), in a metaphorical commentary on Jane’s feminist mental rant at the end.

I think Dr. Cox is mostly right in her analysis of the passage (she is pretty good with these close readings generally — I particularly commend her commentaries on Jane Austen). What I’d like to discuss is the wider angle of Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with the themes of non-balanced power dynamics.

Jane Eyre is one book — among all the other books I read in surveys of the period — that all but demanded that I read it like a writer. I mostly do that anyway, but I think CB deliberately invites the interlocutor into the space where the story is being created: “Reader, I married him” seems to me another way of saying, “Writer, this is how I’m doing this story.” At some points of the text this invitation seems almost like daring the reader/writer to argue; at others it seems to presume a collaborative listening on our part, and this is where I’m reminded that the Brontë children made up stories together in a literal collaboration of writing/reading.

When it comes to this feminist/counter-feminist tidal lock in Jane Eyre, I have to (pause to groan) bring up The Professor. I’m not going to say go read The Professor if you haven’t, because you probably will wish you hadn’t. It’s an extremely idtastic early novel of CB’s in which the titular professor goes to Belgium, courts one of his students and marries her, and finally achieves a relationship in which he can be the dom he’s dreamed of being all his life but who no one in real life would ever want to have as a dom. If you think I’m exaggerating, this novel really puts the sub in subtext, and the reason I bring it up is that this novel is also written in first-person POV — but from the POV of the male character. The female character (well, all the other characters, really, but the love interest in particular) is seen entirely from the outside and is objectified by the narrative as well as the professor. My overall impression of this story is that CB had to write it to cleanse her writerly palate; but the point is this. The D/s elements in The Professor are very strong, counter-feminist, and appear to be quite unexamined; but in Jane Eyre they are brought to the center of the narrative and deliberately engaged by the author with the intent of making a fully integrated story realized not just in the POV of Jane the character, but in the 360 degrees of vantage surrounding her.

What this suggests to me is that while Jane the character is replicating the repressive education she herself received, the narrative is interrogating it, and the author is continuing a process of engaging with elements of her own interior world that she is working out through stories.

That’s one of the things that makes Jane Eyre so exciting as a novel, in my opinion; this deliberate cultivation of the id in story to narrate and re-narrate the experience of powerlessness minus trauma. Part of the mechanism of that in Jane Eyre is an actual redressing of the balance of trauma — Rochester has to suffer in order for Jane’s coming back to him to work as a story. But part of it is also setting up situations in which sexually-inflected power imbalances are handled without threatening the integrity of the person who has less power. I’m thinking particularly of St. John whatsisname and how he tries to tell Jane who she is and is destined to be, which is of course his obedient wife, very Professor-like; so, she leaves. And goes back to Rochester, who may be chaotic but at least seems to get her. I have a very strong memory of the scene in which Rochester is begging her to be his bigamous mistress and becomes so insistent and tearful that Jane in the narrative voice says “in another moment, I should be able to do nothing with him” — i.e., if she doesn’t change the trajectory of this scene he is going to make her his mistress by force. Jane frames the threat of rape by someone she loves who lied to her as a situation in which she can’t “do something” with him — she can’t make him be obedient, tractable, calm, or docile as she can with his ward, Jane’s pupil. The Professor this is definitely not.

No, Jane Eyre is not reliably feminist as a governess; one would be surprised if she were. But her counter-feminist tendencies are mingled with this element of dominant-submissive power exchange as a part of the author’s ongoing project of recasting potential and even actual traumas as more integrated stories. Conceptually, feminism and D/s interplay are two different issues, but in the human heart, it ain’t necessarily so. Charlotte Brontë has invited us into her parlor as collaborative listeners as she tells this story; she sets the parameters, and we have the opportunity to reimagine trauma as integrity along with her. I think it’s this aspect of the book that makes it a feminist project, more than the sum of its ideological parts.

Part of the problem for my generation of writers, though, is that the New Critics stand between us and the Brontës, with their insistence that “objective” (which is to say, established and therefore male) storytelling is superior to that which draws on the author’s id; that the recasting of trauma and power imbalances as integrated stories is a contemptible project for a writer to undertake. To which, at this point in my life, I want only to make the same reply that Captain Marvel did: “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”

But I am writing this blog post: I’m glad people are still reading Jane Eyre and grappling with its implications, because it’s still a hugely important book, and I can only aspire to the kind of narrative theology that CB’s achievement represents.

Warmish Take: “Careful or I’ll put you in my novel.”

Hello and welcome to the newest segment on this here blog, Warmish Takes. There are already plenty of places where you can get Hot Takes, but what yours truly promises here are Warmish Takes, straight off the bat.

Mind you, many of my takes are Warmish because it takes me so damn long to string enough words together: hence the hiatus here while I coped with Summer Doldrums and Plot Problems. More on that in another post. Fortunately, some of my Warmish Takes receive a flush of renewed warmth by coming back round again in the social media turbine, and that’s the case with today’s take.

In keeping with the warmishness of my takes, I’m not going to link out to any NYT articles or dissections of the short story “Cat Person” (the value of which for me is primarily in improving my Current Events percentage in my online trivia league). I’m just going to address this whole idea of “borrowing” (or “stealing” or whatever) other people’s lives and personalities to write fiction with.

And yes, I’m a longtime fan of Anne Lamott too, who says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.” I’ve read any number of tweets the last few months in which writers defend themselves against the charge of sociopathy with something along these lines. Don’t want to appear in a writer’s fiction? Don’t have writer friends. Or friends with writers for friends. Or something.

As pointed out on Twitter, this particular hazard seems to be more endemic to the literary fiction world:

And really, why not? Literary fiction is more likely to involve situations and personalities that can be more easily lifted (or at least recognized) from the people around us. It does seem like a natural kind of hazard. I suspend judgment, like a shiny trapset cymbal to bang upon when the mood strikes. After all, aside from the more obvious heists, writers are the last people to know what alchemy induced them to come up with and sustain a story or a character — I say sustain because no matter how juicy a bit of goss might be, the writer just might not be into it for creative purposes.

No, I suspect there has to be a constellation of motivations in order for a writer to satirize a real-life person in the fiction they write. There are plenty of coffee mugs and bumper stickers warning the public at large: “Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.” I usually take this for a pretty light jest; some writers pay compliments to people they love by drawing on them for a character and killing the character off. And a real friend eats that shit up with a spoon!

So yeah, judgment suspended. But…I can’t be the only writer who doesn’t really do this?

I mean, not that you’re not all interesting, you crazy multifaceted diamonds, you. It’s just a way of going about things that is really foreign to me. I just don’t really get the concept of fictionalizing things and people that are really out there. I don’t get fictionalizing my own life, or any of my experiences; all of that stuff is like wool sheared from the sheep, destined to be carded and dyed and spun and become something, well…else. Not rearranged into the shape of the original sheep and framed on a wall. It just doesn’t make any sense to me as a writer at all.

It’s not dazzlingly unique to say that all my characters are made out of me-stuff, out of things I’ve thought and felt and experienced; and I’m sure that’s true of these other kinds of writers too. Who knows, maybe I do have a roman à clef kicking around in me somewhere. But as of this warmish moment, it’s not interesting to me, either to write or to read.

And that’s my Warmish Take.

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.

Getting (re)started, plus music

So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.

So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).

Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.

Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.

So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Café called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!

…And the living is easy

Not much has been going on here at Maelstrom Manor in the last week or so. I have consumed an appreciable amount of media and an equally appreciable number of very good grilled cheese sandwiches. I cut my own hair for the second time this epoch in my life this epoch which feels like the equivalent to my entire life so far. My main objective was to lighten the load on my head for the summer months, but I did not meddle too much with the delicate bang-swoop my stylist had created in the Before Times, and so the result is coincidentally a bit like that of Charlize Theron in The Old Guard. Nominally; Theron is about my age, isn’t she? So why does she have such a smooth un-crepey underchin? Mysteries.

But, speaking of The Old Guard, I heartily enjoyed it and feel more fannish about it than I have about anything in a long while. It was exactly the shoot-’em-up hero-team movie I was looking for when I rented Birds of Prey some days ago. (Capsule review: yes, the cinematography is good; yes, the wisecracking peripatetic narration a la Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets my affection; yes, some interesting characters — and Ewan McGregor is astonishingly creepy. The sum of the parts, though, I found a bit oppressive, and I can’t say I’m entirely glad I watched it.)

The Old Guard, though — it has all the things I like to see in a hero action flick. Charlize Theron kicking ass: check. (Bonus: she grins at Nile when fighting her like come on kid, hit me harder than that!) Team strength based on friendships (actual friendships, not snarkfests): check. The Operative Chiwetel Ejiofor as a morally-troubled chorus base note: I won’t say no! A coherent narrative structure with an equally-coherent moral imperative as a throughline: far too rare in these things. Opportunities for days for meta speculation: more fun even than the fanfiction, I have to admit.

For bedtime viewing I’ve been mining Youtube for all the seasons of Time Team that aren’t on Prime. Last night’s viewing was an episode set in coastal Scotland, and the local guest archaeologist’s name was Douglas Speirs; I snorted. A thing I very much enjoy about later seasons of Time Team is that all the regulars have this contentiously affectionate relationship with each other. You can count on Phil Harding getting into it with John Gater the geophysicist; John Gater getting into it with Stuart Ainsworth, the landscape archeologist (“Where’s Stuart?” someone inevitably asks; the answer is usually following a tangent in the undergrowth somewhere); and Tony Robinson starting a scene by waving his arms and crying, “It’s Day Three and we haven’t found a single thing!!” and all the archaeologists unite to retort, “Yes we have!” with varying degrees of injury. Then they all go down the pub.

Talk about vicarious enjoyment. I can’t go down to my local and watch the Royals game on the big TV with a frosty pint in hand, rubbing elbows with the other regulars. And I really miss that. But I can go to sleep in the comforting knowledge that somewhere, Professor Mick Aston is still wearing a hand-knitted jumper striped in many wild colors.

That’s the kind of world I want to get back to.

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.