mrissa: (reading)

I saw this post, which is called “A love letter to my first library,” and I thought, well, it’s shameful confession time for me.

I don’t love my first library.

My first library was adequate.

I loved going to the library. I wanted to go to the library more, ever more. We went no less often than fortnightly, usually weekly, and it was a treat, a highlight, always. When I was the size of child without perspective on managing household tasks, whichever parent had just taken me to the library had a halo, as though they had not arranged it between them: “I’ll stop by Target and pick up shampoo and Scotch tape while she’s at church choir, and then we can go to the library and the bank on the way home,” or whatever the errand list was that week. Whichever parent hadn’t gotten the library rotation would hear, “Daddy! Mommy took me to the library!” or, “Mommy, guess where Daddy and I went?” Because when you’re 4 years old and perpetually book-short, “Why don’t we go to the library?” is one of those suggestions that can only be met with, “HOLY CRUD YES HOW BRILLIANT I LOVE YOU YOU ARE THE BEST PARENT EVER.” Every. Single. Time.

But the library itself? It was brown and small; it was quiet and had the right kind of quiet that libraries should have, and it had the right kind of booky smell that libraries should have. But it also had a horrible habit of stocking books two and seven of whatever series you wanted to read, and I had already read most of what was there before I could really remember being old enough to read it. This was in Omaha, where literature and education are less a priority than they are here. Their library system was extremely sporadic about use of the rocket ship or atom stickers that most science fiction readers talk about, so I didn’t really connect with genre as a marker of things I liked until I had a moment of epiphany when I was much older. They had the barbaric practice of limiting children to ten books at a time, under which system I chafed horribly. I read no more slowly then than I do now, but children’s books are shorter, so I would end up rereading whatever I’d liked of the ten books several times in the week, plus several of my own books at home. And interlibrary loan was a thing of dreams then. If it wasn’t there, well, it wasn’t. You went to the library to get what was at the library. Other branches? What other branches?

So I spent much of my childhood yearning for Grandpa’s library, because what you wanted was already there. With adult perspective, this is not because I went there less often, although of course that helped. Grandpa’s main library was the Hennepin County one by Brookdale, although he also went to the little one in Brooklyn Park. It really was gigantic. It really was full of wonders. Objectively, it is an amazing library. And this was readily apparent to me from the time I was first taken there, which was when I was very, very small, because it was readily apparent to Grandpa that I was the sort of small person who liked the kinds of outings he liked pretty much immediately.

So my first library, my home library when I was small…doesn’t have the traditional “I grew up to be an author” library magic. It was a good place. I liked going there. It was enough for me to like it. Sometimes a like letter is enough.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

See my first post for a description of Nobel Conference and Tuesday’s speakers.

Wednesday morning began with a rare livestream session, this one from Steven Weinberg. He talked about the clues we have to the hidden world beyond the standard model: where do things get weird consistently, and what would it take to find out what’s going on there? I was particularly pleased that he wanted a positive reason why formal mathematical simplicity should appear in our theories–that “we just like it a lot” is not a great reason and in fact can lead us astray, as it may have in the current formulation of Einstein’s equations, which he suggested may be more complicated than we think due to undetectable terms due to extra powers divided by very long lengths. My favorite moment was when he declared something “of no fundamental interest–well, it’s interesting to astronomers, but they’re interested in a lot of things.” (I am like astronomers in this.) I found the talk energizing and fascinating, ranging as it did across interaction strengths and neutrino masses, but the reaction of the people around me was frankly disheartening: they did not seem to follow what he was getting at.

Then came one of the stand-out first-rate blow-your-mind talks of the conference, one of the ones that moved me to tears, one of the talks that made me sad that standing ovations have become so common so that people do not feel the impact of it when I leap to my feet, because quite often people stand, particularly when they are about to leave for lunch. Harry Gray is the father of bio-inorganic chemistry. He is also, quite incidentally, a former professor of my friend Ctein, I learned later, but that had nothing to do with his talk, which was mostly about a thing he calls the Twenty-First Century Solar Army. And wow, wow, wow, wow. I came away a convert to Harry Gray’s Solar Army. If you know a teenager who’s interested in chemistry, Harry Gray will send them the materials they need to help participate on a genuinely useful level in this really cool project. They can help find two different catalysts, one for reducing and one for oxidizing, seawater, to use for clean hydrogen fuel. It’s explained very clearly on the website, and they’ll go into more detail if you’re interested and contact them. Harry Gray is the sort of person who is big enough that he doesn’t need to hog credit–he was giving names of specific high school and college students who have helped with breakthroughs, because he can, he needs to, he wants this to work, and he wants more help with it working. He talked about the range of things he wanted to try requiring either robots or students, and he preferred students because they’ll talk back and tell him when he’s wrong, and I went, oh, yes, you, you are the guy. (Although I’m hoping we’ll get robots there too someday. But that’s another Nobel Conference.) They did a really cool photo anode with an intercalated N2 in the middle of the WO3 that the referees of journals did not believe until they got confirmation from both Berkeley and Brookhaven because it was just too far “out there.” It’s great stuff. And you don’t have to be in the US to do it, he’ll take recruits to the Solar Army from anywhere and send them materials. The kids involved have started having their own conventions, SEAL-CONs, to talk about their work, and it’s been going on long enough that a lot of them are going on to work in the sciences as grad students or beyond. It was so wonderful. I ran into one of my old professors afterwards, and we were so excited that we hugged each other twice, and we’re both from here. So. Yeah. Solar Army, look into it, wonderful stuff.

Thank heavens lunch was between that and Jennifer L. West’s talk, because if there hadn’t been a substantial break, I’m not sure I could have coped. And West’s was the other talk that moved me to tears with how good it was. She led in with talking about matching the scale of the treatment to the scale of the medical problem. She touched on growing biomimetic patterned tissue to match certain types of cells (mostly thin/avascular cells) and the need to figure out how to grow capillaries on scaffolds. Then the main body of her talk was about nanoshells and their use in cancer treatments through photo-thermal therapy. These incredibly small silicon balls have finely determined shells of gold. They’re injected into the blood stream of cancer patients, and their size is selected such that they won’t be filtered out in the kidneys but will collect at the tumor sites due to the way tumors form blood vessels–basically, tumors are kind of crap at forming blood vessels and end up with leaky vaculature compared to normal cells, so if you get the size of your tiny nanoshell gold-and-silicon thing right, it will congregate in just the spot of the tumor. Then when you irradiate with light near the IR spectrum (650-900 nm), it’s harmless to the rest of the healthy tissue but causes rapid heating of the nanoshell (15 C hotter than surrounding tissue) and burns off only the tumor.

This. Is. Amazing.

They can adjust them to do either imaging (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to scatter the light) or therapy (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to absorb, as above with the rapid heating). So you can get a good idea of exactly where the tumor is without injecting tagging drugs, or you can just blast the sucker. The “blast the sucker” preliminary results are extremely good on breast cancer and brain cancer in the lab so far, and in clinical trials on head and neck, prostate, and lung cancers, with no bad side effects and really great rates of efficacy. They are also looking at extending to multimodal uses and doing CT imaging–they could do MR if they included gadolinium, too. You can also add a thermally responsive coating of a chemo drug to expel the drug when the laser is on, so that it gets delivered very directly to the tumor site, at which point I was gasping, “What do you mean more therapeutic modalities?” and muttering, “It slices, it dices, it juliennes.” It was all just so much and so cool.

She noted in the Q&A that the structure of brain tumors often breaks down the blood-brain barrier anyway, and that nanoshells can take advantage of this. She also noted that the designers had to be careful of the surface chemistry to minimize risk of emboli, but that this care was quite effective so far.

This was a couple weeks ago, so I did think of Velma. I thought of other friends with cancer, some for whom this treatment is not in time. But it just sounds like it will help so many people. I scribbled furiously as she talked about the potential applications in retinopathy and other problems. And I cried, because it was just so very wonderful. A few days later, a friend was Tweeting something about how “we’re not going to cure cancer, but we *can*” [some other charitable assistance]. And I thought, it’s not a zero-sum game. “Curing cancer” is not all one thing. We’re closer to helping a lot more cancer patients than we think, and those we can help, can go on and help with other things that need doing in the world. I understand that it can be frustrating when your cause is not as popular as some other cause, but like the man says, we all do better when we all do better, and guys, this is one of the things better looks like. This really is better.

Antonio Damasio started out by giving the aphorism, “Never tackle the problem of consciousness before you’re tenured.” Then he gave a list of different things people mean when they say “consciousness,” narrowing his own focus to the experience of subjectivity, which he tries to separate in study from the mind-making part of consciousness, and further separate the interior and exterior-directed mind-making bits. He talked about the body phantom, interoception, and brainstem nuclei structure. He also talked about myelination and the role of risk in consciousness. Finally, he brought up second-order maps and the possible role of reflexive looping in creating sensation awareness and consciousness. It was one of those things that I wanted to go back over again with the diagram of brainstem nuclei structure several times to make sure I had the details right, but it was very neat stuff, and he’s got several books and articles out that will be worth tracking down.

Patricia Smith Churchland was introduced as Manitoba’s punk rock neurophilosopher. She theorizes about the neurological basis of moral values and is very, very much against Richard Dawkins and his social theories. She hypothesized that oxytocin and vasopressin were the hub and basis of the system that built up into much more complicated social rewards and eventually social and moral values. She included the caveat that any category will have fuzzy boundaries and be socially influenced, so she was less interested in the edges between what’s social and what’s moral and more in the center of the concept. She talked a lot about the uses of oxytocin and vasopressin in nurturance and attachment in different kinds of mammalian brains and how simple these things aren’t, how they interact with dopamine and other chemicals in the brain and out of it. She also talked about some things we don’t know–the human density of oxytocin receptors, for example, and the fact that almost all experiments in this chemical set are done on men because oxytocin tends to send women into estrus, so…I will be interested in how this is handled in future studies, because it seems like it’s worth knowing. A lot of people early on wanted to just have snorting oxytocin be useful for something, or more oxytocin be better for attachment, (I have seen this in SF writers, so I wanted to note it here!), but there are issues with blood-brain barrier and with it having different effects all over the body or with tipping over into entirely different behaviors.

And then I went home and collapsed and absorbed it all. Wow, wow.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (memories)

A couple weeks ago, I went down to my alma mater for an event they have annually: Nobel Conference. They get Nobel laureates and other cool scientists to come and give lectures around a particular theme for two days in early October. I used to love Nobel Conferences when I was a student, and they’re not just for students, not in the least. This year was the 50th anniversary conference, and as such they decided on a broader theme, the future of science. They brought back several favorite speakers from past Nobel Conferences, including inviting Freeman Dyson to be the banquet keynote speaker to finish the conference on Wednesday. Well. Freeman Dyson was my professor for a semester when I was at Gustavus, and he was a really lovely person. I was halfway talked into going when I was reading through the rest of the presenters, but when I got to him on the list, that was it: I had to go see him again.

Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t make it. But by then I’d already committed to doing it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to have lunch with my former advisor and see a couple of my other professors, I got to hear some really exciting lectures on a wide variety of topics. I also sat the first day with an earnest and wide-eyed high school student and the second day with some eager and fascinated old people, so that was fun too, the different people I ran into who were interested in coming together for this sort of thing. If you’re in the greater Minnesota-Wisconsin area–even northern Iowa, really–you should think about Nobel Conference. There’s nothing quite like it.

Steven Chu showed some very interesting graphs about costs, regulation, and energy, which did not do what economists predict or can explain at all. One of his interesting quotes was from Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end but not for a lack of oil.” He talked about room-temperature storage and long-distance transmission of energy from renewables (e.g. wind and solar) as major technical goals for the next chunk of time. He felt that his biggest successes were invisible to the public: recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, especially those in their 40s, to this line of work, and to the National Academy of Science in particular. I didn’t mind not hearing about his original work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, because the stuff he’s done since has been interesting, too. I was definitely a Steven Chu fan by the end of his talk.

I wish I could say the same of Sir Harold Kroto. His original work on fullerenes was so impressive, I’d have loved to hear about that, but if not that, something else that was…not a rehash of every flat Atlantic or New Yorker article ever written on the subject of creativity, with a heaping helping of Kids These Days mixed in. Things are not as they were when Sir Harold was a youth, and Sir Harold does not approve! He’s not about to spend any time trying to understand, adjust, or God help us improve anything. He just does not approve! Some helpful person tried to steer him towards something, anything like a positive path in the Q&A session, and he was having none! Sadly I did not bring my cane, so I could not lend it to him to shake at some clouds. Seriously, what a disappointment. Fullerenes are so cool that even if you do nothing else interesting, you can always return to that–and should, if you have nothing else to other than harumphing.

With Sean B. Carroll, though, we were entirely back on track, and I am definitely looking for his book. He talked about the icefish, a creature that evolved to have plasma full of antifreeze that came from digestive enzymes. It’s one of less than a dozen vertebrates to lack red blood cells and absorb oxygen passively. This is the kind of random nerdy crap I really enjoy, and he went on to talk about more evolutionary examples in animal development, about European kestrels mutating to see in the UV instead of blue/violet and getting to see trails of vole urine as a result, because apparently vole urine is quite visible in the UV. Who knew! What lovely stuff. He also talked about the astonishing progress in restoring large species diversity at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Exciting, inspiring stuff.

Svante Pääbo talked about early humans and the hominids lines who contributed to homo sapiens, and then the hominid lines who contributed to them. I think the best part of his talk was that when he was first at Nobel conference in 2008, he gave a firm date beyond which we probably wouldn’t know anything about hominid line contributions, and now, six years later, he was thoroughly willing to rescind that, talking about an older hominid line that we can see contributing to the Denisovans the way the Denisovans contributed to us, and he’s no longer willing to say, “Here is the date before which we won’t be able to say anything.” I just loved that. I loved watching knowledge extend just that fast that he stopped trying to say what we can’t know. And I loved that he could put up a list of all human-specific amino acids on one slide.

I left early from Gary Ernst’s talk; he was disorganized and breathless and kept circling back around points that were either staggeringly obvious or really alarming. (“Drilling for oil has been contaminating the groundwater for 150 years and nobody cared before,” is as direct a quote as I could write it down. I don’t even. Just–no.) He was the last talk of the day, and I was tired, so maybe his talk got better, but I did not stick around to find out. In a slate of ten panelists, having only two of them give bad talks and the other eight somewhere between good and transcendently great is an amazing ratio.

I have more to say here, and the two best talks, the ones where the science moved me to tears, are yet to come. But this is already getting long, so I should break it into two posts, so I will come back to Wednesday’s talks in my next Nobel Conference post.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (memories)
I posted earlier this week about trying to segregate my dealings with politics and do it deliberately and consciously. That's not the only thing I've done recently for the care and conscious maintenance of available levels of Mris. Another one happened as I was packing for Montreal, and it was an odd step for me.

I admitted that I am no longer keeping a paper journal.

I started with my paper journals in 1997, when I was in an Intro Creative Writing class. When I went to pack for Montreal, the suitcase and backpack were pretty full, and I looked at my paper journal and realized that it didn't have any entries for 2012, just for 2011. So that's 14 years, basically. When I started, there were personal thoughts and feelings, there was personal log stuff, and there were lots of scenes and scenelets, lots of pieces of story development, lots of title ideas, things I was thinking about what I was reading, quotes I liked, a hodgepodge of thises and thats. The paper journals went everywhere with me. Seriously everywhere. For awhile I wrote in huge ones because I went through them too fast for the little ones to be economical. I have some fancy ones, some lab notebooks, some hand-painted by me and some by others, some carefully selected for me as gifts and some bought in a panic when I ran out of journal and had to get what I could. All of them were bound books with pages that couldn't be removed. They fill a shelf to slightly overflowing.

As time went on, my use of them shifted. My computer was on all the time, and writing out scenes in them and then retyping those scenes on the computer was no longer a good use of my time, particularly as I became a professional writer. Soon I was composing pretty much everything on my computer, and the journal entries were for thinking stuff through, keeping records--but only the things that weren't public, only the things that wouldn't go on lj. And I started doing that differently too. Soon it didn't make a lot of sense to have my journal with me all the time--it was bulky, and instead of being able-bodied I was a person who was having to deal with a cane some of the time. So instead there would be a tiny notepad in my purse, and the pages of the tiny notepad could get stuck in the journal.

Except a lot of times there's no reason for them to be. A lot of times they can go directly into the story file, or directly into the file I keep for story ideas, or directly into the library list, or the to do list, or...yeah.

These things have a natural ebb and flow to them. My paper journals served me well for awhile, and sometimes when I was particularly stressed I would think, "I should make more of an effort to write in my journal again." Except...whenever I did that, it became an item on the to-do list. It never became a natural outlet for me again.

And so I've let go. It's not a permanent and dramatic renunciation--"I will never write in a paper journal again!" There's room at the end of the last one. I didn't decide that I had to set myself a goal of filling its pages or anything like that. I can pick it up again if I decide I want to. But right now, where I am and who I am right now, it's not the thing that's working for me. It's not the process I have right now. And that's okay. It was good then, and doing without it is good now, and if it's good again in the future, I'll pick it up again then.

I'm just trying to be careful about doing things because I want to or need to or because they're in some way good or useful, and not because I Always Have Done. I'm trying to be careful about watching my habits to make sure that they're there for a reason and not just for inertia.
mrissa: (mrischief)
So one of the things that's been going on here recently is that I was trying to figure out how to be able to make my good singing and my audible singing same. Because I was not having a lot of success with [ profile] timprov being able to hear me over the guitar, for one thing. I have talked before about how I do participatory music but not performance music, but that's a thing that affects participatory music. It doesn't have to be a big performance.

When I mentioned to [ profile] timprov that this was something I was trying to figure out, he took me through a few things that were incredibly simple and worked. So yay for success! We have done a few things lately like having me sing a song for him while he tried to figure out the chords for it, since he can both play the chords and hear the notes now.

But it was sad to me because I realized that I had been actively taught wrong. Not just not actively taught right, but some of the things that my old church choir director, who was a very dear person, had explicitly taught us with teaching songs I can reproduce to this very day...were wrong. Were directly, exactly, the opposite of what you want to do when you're singing to get a good pure tone with volume control. What I was taught to do with my head and neck while singing was just exactly opposite. And now that I know it, I can look at footage of singers and go, "Uh, yah. They are all doing the opposite of what she taught us to."

Several of my experiences with this sort of thing were things I was aware of at the time and resented. I was, for example, taught that the Germans sunk the Lithuania, and that the Pentagon was on the Acropolis. I was taught that all electron shells after the first one contain eight electrons. And I fussed and fumed and fulminated against the teachers who taught me these things. But with this choir director...I'm just sad. I have fond memories of her. I can't dislike her. And yet she taught me a thing that has made an activity I enjoy more difficult than it had to be, with worse results, for literally thirty years, and I am only 33. I don't really know what to do about that except to be sad and baffled.
mrissa: (memories)
Dear Mr. Gabriel,

If you had turned out to be a veteran goblin hunter, I would totally not have been surprised.

Also, I miss you.

Respect and so much gratitude,
mrissa: (memories)
People thank all sorts of friends, family members, and colleagues for all sorts of things in the acknowledgements of their books.

I'm kind of thinking it would be a little gauche to thank a college friend I haven't seen or spoken to in years, with full name, in the form of, "And thanks to C---- S--- for showing me exactly what Tommy Heikkanen sounds like drunk," though.

At one point at that very memorable physics Christmas party, the hosts had run out of cups. They served him his glögg in a measuring cup. And he brought it back to the couch where Heathah and Jen The World's Best Lab Partner and I were sitting, and he said, "It's a cup--that's a cup! Get it?" And then he laughed uproariously.

Tommy Heikkanen is not nearly that happy in this scene. He is a Finnish boy who has just figured out exactly what horrible magical thing caused the death of someone he knew, and he is drinking rather determinedly as a result. (Note: this is not more helpful with magical problems than it is with mundane ones.) But the diction, the diction is just exactly the thing.
mrissa: (thinking)
I have a problem with The Pirates of Penzance, and it's the same problem I have with Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall novels.

I should back up and say that I love The Pirates of Penzance with a fierce and irrational love. I can sing the vast majority of it (if it's shifted by the appropriate octaves etc.), but I have had a preferred role since I was 11 years old, and that role is the Pirate King. (It is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King. Trust me on this one.) I had backup singers, when I was eleven and singing that song, friends who would chime in to do, "Hurrah, hurrah for the Pirate King!" for me. We are all nearing three times as old now, and I still love those girls, and more rarely and preciously, I still love the women they've become. But that is a long, long digression, and full of Arthur Ransome and Rosemary Sutcliff and heaven knows what else.

But Pirates. Right.

So the thing about Pirates is that I see it whenever I have the chance, and yet it hardly ever gets the Ruth/Mabel thing to match the libretto. For those you who are unaware, Ruth is written to be a plain, frumpy 47-year-old, and Mabel is to be a beautiful 17-year-old.

Also Menolly of Dragonsong and its sequels is the most brilliant songwriter in generations.

Both of these are no problem whatever when I put it down like that, and quite a bit of a problem when you can check for yourself. And I get, and I totally support, that a) very few of us are the most brilliant songwriter in generations and also want to write a novel*, and b) when you are casting an operetta, voice is the most important quality. I do understand all that. But I feel that in the case of the novels, perhaps having everybody on the planet's surface react to your character with "OMG BEST EVAR" is not the thing, and if you're insisting that it is the thing, perhaps the songs themselves ought to remain shrouded in mystery so that the reader does not say, "I can do better than that, and I'm 11 and don't write songs."** And in the case of the operetta, there is such a thing as...dare I suggest it...costuming and makeup?

The worst Pirates I ever saw had a Ruth and a Mabel who both looked like they had reached their mid-fifties or early sixties through a great deal of hard living, and Frederick looked 14. This is almost impossible to do anything about, so if those are the voices you have in a small town production, you will just have to live with it. But today's Pirates! Today's Pirates with GSVLOC had cast a perfectly reasonable-looking young woman as Mabel...and another perfectly reasonable-looking young woman as Ruth. And I kept thinking, "Slap a grey wig on that girl! Put makeup lines on her face!" The singer, Therese Walth, was clearly the correct voice for Ruth--I don't mean she shouldn't have had the chance to play the role. (Which is a better role than Mabel anyway--but I am not a soprano, and I have made every effort in my life to never, ever be an ingenue.) I just felt that especially in her closing costume, Frederick was being shown to have rather specific tastes more than anything else. It is a risk of live theater. It is a risk of librettos that describe too particularly. Sigh.

We've now been going to GSVLOC since 2005, missing only when Grandpa died, and this is apparently long enough to acquire a favorite regular in their company, or at least long enough for me to do so. I am greatly fond of Christopher Michela, who played the Sergeant of Police today, who was particularly memorable as the Mikado a few years ago, and who generally has a notably expressive face and voice. But it's also long enough that I could spot when one of the Major General's wards had a cold today. I hope she feels better soon--she did a credible job anyway, poor dear--but I'm a bit pleased that I get to go to this thing every year, that the company shifts and changes and yet has continuity also, and that I get to see enough of it to know that sort of detail. It makes me happy.

Or maybe I'm just in a good mood because of the Pirate King song. Who knows.

*Although I have great hopes of the forthcoming Josh Ritter novel, "most brilliant songwriter in generations" rather overstates. I am not given to overstatement of this kind. It is enough--quite more than enough, given some of the places they've held in my life in the last few years--that I love Josh's songs. They need not prevent me from loving other songs to earn that.

**Eleven was not chosen randomly here. It was a big year for me.
mrissa: (memories)
So occasionally staying the same size and shape for, um, two decades now gets a little accidentally weird. In this case, if I didn't already have plans, I would feel like I should present myself at [ profile] greykev's and demand to play Magic or possibly D&D.

So the thing is, part of my afternoon plans involve rolling homemade truffles. Don't want to get a nice new shirt messy! Better wear an old one. But it's not very warm here. So this resulted in...a fitted ribbed grey long-sleeved shirt with an old red-and-grey flannel I can put on for warmth and take off when I'm working. And jeans which are not actually the same jeans but might as well be; random boot-cut jeans, same color, same size. And I'll want my hair out of my face, so I braided it. Thick wool socks. I'll put hiking boots on when I go out.

And I looked in the mirror and went, oh, hell, might as well go whole hog with the jewelry. So there's a rune necklace and my Stonehenge/Pi earrings and my rune ring, and by late 1997 I had my engagement ring, and while it's not the same watch, I've gotten approximations of this watch for years now because it's what I want in a watch. So the only new thing is a bracelet I got this year, which looks like it goes with all the rest.

Well. I guess sometimes you have to get back to your roots. It's just that I feel obliged to sing a little grunge medley instead of Christmas carols. Which may be appropriate for the afternoon's plans, too.
mrissa: (question)
[ profile] akillianna asks:

1) What's the last thing that made you angry (not just ticked off)?
I am really bad at angry. I'm not even very good at ticked off. But the last thing that made me feel a completely unexpected rush of anger was when I was watching Battlestar Galactica S3, first or second episode. A favorite character came home to find that their spouse had been taken by the secret police and their baby was left alone crying. For those very few episodes, they live in tents. So either every single one of the neighbors was taken, or--and this seems by far the most likely--someone was listening to the parent being taken and the baby being left alone and screaming and stayed in their tent and did nothing. And the rush of anger bubbled up and went, "Aw hell no."

Yes, it's more dramatic this way. But if that's the human race they've got, maybe the Cylons deserve the universe.

It's not the world I live in. If our door was open and there were audible screams coming from our house, I can name neighbors from four of the nine houses around us who would be in at a run to see what on earth was wrong. And to be clear, that's because those are the people I can name, Tom and Kathy, John and Sherry, Catherine and Mohammad, Jim who sang on the radio in WWII. I have no doubt whatsoever that the long-haired lady whose mailbox is a pun and the brusque mother of three girls and the other next-door neighbors who like us better now and and the fella who clears every last inch of his driveway with even margins every snowfall unless he's sick would do it, too. I just can't put given names on them. We noticed when the ambulance came for Tom and Kathy's Martin in December. We don't get into each other's social lives and personal choices, but terrified baby-by-itself screams are something different.

We rely on this. This is a basic level of humanity.

I think watching crime shows has spoiled me, because all the FBI agents on Criminal Minds and Numb3rs have this in common: they are disgusted and angry when people don't step up. And so are the regular cast in Numb3rs outside the law enforcement professions. The intonation and the body language of "And you didn't say anything?" will vary depending on whether it's Don Eppes or Derek Morgan saying it, but either way it is clear: there is a basic level of humanity we expect of witnesses to murders and suchlike, and you, sonny jim, have failed to live up to it.

I like characters who have standards.

2) What's the worst movie you've seen?
Hmm. You know, I think I'm trying to block that out. I certainly disliked The Road to Wellville at the time, and have not felt any urge to return to see if the jiggling and fart jokes have improved since. (You know that something is highbrow and intelligent, of course, if it has jiggling and fart jokes in a different century than the one in which it was made.) But other than that--oh, wait! I know! My dad and I watched most of the BeeGee's Sgt. Pepper's movie once. That was really awful. We kept yelling down the hall to my mother, "Hey, Ma!" "Hey, hon!" "You gotta come see this, it's so bad!" "Aaaaagh, so terrible! Come watch!" "Nooooo, I can't believe they--Ma, you're missing it!"

For some reason she did not join us.

3) Looking back, who is one person you would have treated nicer in High School and why?
I was actually pretty nice to most people in high school. A small but still alarming number of people from high school have since claimed that I was the only person there who was nice to them, and in some cases I can't remember doing anything even remotely out of the ordinary. Except that apparently asking them how they were doing was out of the ordinary in that place, gah.

I think there are a few people who would have liked me to behave differently, but I disagreed with them rather than being cruel to them. Also there were some boys I would tell my teenage self to ask out instead of waiting around and seeing who turned up asking, but that's not really the same as not being nice to them.

So, as precious princess as it sounds, I'd have to go with me. There were enough people who were pretty hard on me in high school. I didn't need to join them quite so often as I did.

4) If given the chance would you like to know the day of your death?
I can't think how I would trust that information, is the thing. I am too much a skeptic. I would end up with a plan and a backup plan. So probably not, because I can have fairly sound plans and backup plans anyway, just in less detail.

Also I think it would be very sad to try to guess whether I had time to write just one more book and either risk leaving 80% of a book or not get to try.

5) Do you put water on your toothbrush before or after applying the toothpaste?
After. Heathen before people and their slidey wet toothbrushes and their slightly-too-dry toothpaste! Uff da, what a thing.
mrissa: (memories)
Every time I'm trying to describe a large building in a way that will make it feel nice and comfortable and just a little quirky, if I'm not thinking too hard about it, it comes out with three wings in pale tan sandy stone, with stylized human figures carved in bas relief on parts of it. This is probably not a horribly telling quirk for anybody who didn't go to Gustavus, but for those who do, it's pretty clear that I imprinted like the proverbial wee duckling on our dear departed Wahlstrom Hall, and my subconscious is not ready to let it go.

I am not conscious of any analogous reaction to my high school, not even when I'm trying to describe nasty places. From the first semester, Gustavus was mine in a way Ralston High wasn't, because I chose Gustavus for myself, and it chose me. And also I think I am wired to have a stronger memory of the good stuff than the bad. Our shabby old apartments are similarly not particularly strong components of my subconscious landscape.

(Which reminds me that my cousin was telling me that there were lots of people from RHS on Facebook, for good and ill. Do I want a Facebook page? I kind of think I don't, but if you have any knowledge of anything good that comes of it, do let me know in the comments section or on e-mail. I'd like to think I'm not closed-minded about these things.)

Anyway. I don't think this is to the point where I need to institute a sandy tan stone ban; it's unlikely to annoy even the most dedicated of readers at the current level of frequency. Still, it's odd to read what I've written and think, "Oh. Um. Well, that. Again. Yes." Some people have a thing for parent/child tropes, some people always write redheaded heroines who toss their curls. Me, I've got rocks in my head. Grainy pale ones.
mrissa: (Default)
Oh hair conditioner manufacturers:

Why why WHY did you have to change the formulation of your conditioner so that it smells exactly like the "Barbie and the Rockers: Diva" doll I had when I was 8? What could possibly have motivated this behavior? And how did you pick that particular doll over Malibu Barbie or Skatin' Fun Skipper? Or Cabbage Patch dolls or Strawberry Shortcakes? Was there a contest? Because I'm pretty alarmed at a contest for which this is the result.
mrissa: (helpful nudge)
(This started last night: I was thinking about what advice we can give kids who are stuck in a bad high school situation. Still am.)

When we as adults give advice to high school kids who are having a bad time at school, I think one of the ways it most easily goes wrong is that we make it sound like they ought to be able to do what we're suggesting, rather than making it clear that it might be useful to them if they could. The phrase I'm thinking of here is, "Don't let them bother you." Also, "Don't let them get to you," or, "What do you care what they think?" Of course it's useful if you can simply not care whether people around you are being hostile and nasty. But really, how many of us as adults can, by sheer force of will, make it totally not matter that we're spending forty hours a week with people who are willing to be as unpleasant as they can get away with? Not many. Not many of us as adults have to put up with that sort of thing. I have a friend who has recently left a bad job, a situation in which people were relentlessly hostile to her and to each other for her entire work day, five days a week. It was extremely hard on her, not because she wanted to be cool or wanted them to be her best friends evAR!!!11!!1!, but because she is a human being, and that kind of toxic environment is hard on anyone.

I think we should be careful to make it clear to teenagers who are having a bad time at school that we're not saying, "You should be able to do this; everyone can do this," but rather, "Look, we're focusing on you because you can't control the other person. We know this is hard for most people, but it's the best we can think of right now."

And you can't control the other people in your class. You really, really can't. And so fixating on "making them see" or "showing them" or "making them feel [whatever]," is not useful. The win condition is not that your high school classmates flock around you telling you how much they respected the theorem you just proved or the book you just wrote or the marketing decision you just made or the way you just handled your kid's tantrum. The win condition is that you can only remember the names of the ones who were kind and/or interesting to you. The win condition is that when you get news of something terrible happening to someone who smeared Ben Gay all over your friend's locker or pushed another friend down the stairs or any of the other lovely things that happened in high school, you are not glad. Because you're not just a bigger and better person than that, you're so much bigger and better and have moved on with your life so far that you had to stop and think why that name sounded familiar. That's what winning looks like.

So how do you move towards that win condition while you're still in high school? I don't know entirely; anyone with suggestions should feel totally welcome in the comments section. But I will note that the people I know who got through high school the happiest, healthiest people -- even if it was a good high school -- were mostly the ones who had other things outside school with which they strongly identified themselves. For a lot of them it was something computer-related, but that's probably a major skew because of the type of people I know. For me there was writing, and there was my piano, and both of those things were ways in which I could challenge myself and do interesting things that had nothing to do with school. I also had a bunch of pen-pals, which would probably translate to something internettish these days, but the point is, there were people who knew me and liked me and didn't care what so-and-so said to me in gym because they would only find out what so-and-so said if I could make it an entertaining story to tell them, or if I needed to vent. We stick kids in this environment and make it their major point of identity, which is disorienting enough at the end if the kids involved are in a good high school. When it's a bad one, we're strongly encouraging them to define themselves through something that makes them miserable. This is not healthy. It's not okay. And even something as simple as, "I'm someone who likes to go fishing with my cousins in the summer," or, "I'm someone who grows cucumbers," is a better way to identify oneself than, "I'm the verbal punching bag for Mrs. X's third period."

By the time you're in high school, having parents "put you in" a karate class or an archery class or a pastry-cookery class is not a good thing; if it's not what you've chosen, it's more of being shuffled around at other people's whim, which is not something you're exactly short on in high school. But sitting down and thinking to yourself, "What would be interesting to me apart from graduation requirements and college applications and dodging the jerks at school? What do I want to be able to do?" might be a good start. Everyone has to build a life that's irrelevant of the structures of high school eventually. Everyone has to find an identity that doesn't involve where your locker is or who you sit with in the cafeteria. No reason not to start as soon as you can.
mrissa: (helpful nudge)
So why was I asking about compliments again earlier today?

Well. Someone called Nameseeker was asking, in the comments to my post about Minicon and the "Geek, Be Not Ashamed" panel, what I'd recommend to someone going through a bad high school experience. What would help with that situation? It's a good question. It's one I've been thinking about. And a week from tomorrow I'll be part of Career Day at a local high school, and so while I'm hoping that it's a good one, not the really toxic atmosphere some of them are, it's got me thinking about that. And sure, like the man says, escape is a prisoner's first duty -- but nobody screws up high school so badly that they're still a sophomore at 47. So there's escape, but there's also the consideration of how to do it so that you'll be functional later. How to get free of it without chewing your leg off, so to speak. Not always easy.

Compliments were a major weapon at my high school. The barbed compliment, the sarcastic compliment, the compliment that turns on someone else present, the compliment that's supposed to erase months or years of ill-treatment...and then the complimenter can turn to others and say, "I was just trying to be nice." There was one girl at my high school -- which was, in case you hadn't heard by now, a pretty nasty one, although there were several salvageable experiences from it -- who was clearly trying to be nice by her own standards. She wanted to be known as a nice person. She also wanted to be "popular," in the high school sense of being in an in-crowd. And it did not occur to this kid that people would set the value of her attempted niceness much higher if she didn't spend her time with some of the meanest people in the school. If the sort of people who would kick handicapped kids in their leg braces and make fun of the kids who could barely speak a sentence didn't get a free pass from her on their behavior.

So I guess my first piece of advice for people trying to endure a toxic high school is to recognize that other people are having to live with the toxicity as well, and to be as kind as you can manage. Other people may not notice it. But it'll be something you know about yourself. You don't have to be indefinitely kind to people who are mean to you, but it might be useful to give people more than one chance; if they're used to hearing, "Is that a good book?" with derisive snickers behind it, they may not be prepared to take it as a serious and congenial discussion question the first time around.

(This is not the same thing as being as nice as you can manage. Nice is a club you can give other people to beat you with. Nice conforms to local standards, particularly for girls. "Nice" may prevent you from taking a good swing at the guy who kicked the girl in her leg braces. "Kind," on the other hand, may well tell you to go for it; sticking up for others can be very kind and well-remembered years later.)

This was meant to be a longer post, but with work on fiction and the ever-popular vertigo troubles, it's taken me this long just to get a start on it. So I'll try to do more later on the same theme, because I think it's unfortunately important.
mrissa: (thinking)
So, Valentine's Day, huh? All right: I'll tell you a story about love.

Once upon a time there was little girl who had a bully. He was not unwilling to beat people up if they were boys, although he knew that the teachers who looked the other way when he was a racist little beast (among other fine traits) would step in and put a stop to it if he hit girls. But what he really loved was to say horrible, nasty things to people. Starting in kindergarten, he thought it was great fun if he could make people cry. By the time third grade rolled around, he hadn't made this little girl cry, but he made her furious and miserable quite a lot.

Furious and miserable was not good enough.

So he brought out the big guns, the worst thing he could think of. Surely that would finally make her cry. This little girl was an only child. And her bully informed her that that meant that her parents didn't want kids at all, that they didn't like her and certainly didn't love her. And then he folded his arms to watch her fall apart.

And she laughed.

Of all the things the little girl knew in her clever, bookish little life, the one that was bedrock certain, all the way down, was that her Mom and Daddy loved her and wanted her. And so the bully's spell was broken. After that, he could upset her by hurting her best friends, but she always knew that he was full of it, making things up to be hurtful, and his power over her was gone.

Not everyone is given that kind of bedrock-certainty love as a kid. But everyone should be. Those of us who have that kind of upbringing have the world's most important kind of noblesse oblige. We are obligated to pass that along -- to our own children if we have any, but also to partners and friends, to whatever others we come upon in our lives who have a piece of our hearts, mentors or protégés, cousins, in-laws, godchildren, whoever. We owe it to the rest of the world to find people to whom we can pass on that certainty of love. We need to let the people we love know it so thoroughly that when the world's nasty voices hiss, "She doesn't really love you," they can laugh and say, "Of course she does. What a stupid thing to say," and mean it down into their bones.
mrissa: (question)
There's a multiple-question meme going around my friendslist, and like many such memes, it includes the question, "What would you do if we were stuck in an elevator?" I don't know if the people who wrote this were 15-year-olds looking to solicit make-out offers or what*, but I suspect that they have never been stuck in an elevator. I have. Unless you are fortunate enough to be stuck in a large elevator with very few, very well-prepared people**, there are two choices for when you are stuck in an elevator and have done sensible things like attempting to get the elevator unstuck and pressing the emergency call button: converse or endure in silence. Those are what you've got. "I would dance a funny little dance!" No, you wouldn't. It's an elevator. There is not room for your funny little dance. "We could improvise ways to --" Nope. Elevator. I appreciate your attempts at lj whimsy, but honestly? Elevator. Wee tiny box, often with cameras. Converse or endure. If you each packed a book, it's a happy read-y silence. There is unlikely to be room to play cards on the floor even if you packed a deck on your person at all times. Anything more ambitious than that, forget it.

My fiction studio senior year had something like an elevator-stoppage story (fiction) for every four people. A brief survey of the class indicated that I was the only one who had ever actually been stuck in an elevator. But people wanted to throw their characters together randomly and with no escape, so they didn't have to ask questions like "Why are these people talking to each other, anyway?" and "Why don't they just leave?" The random-airplane-seatmates-talk story was even more popular -- something like 50% of the class turned those suckers in. The professor begged them to stop.

The armchair psychologist in me notes that the type of survey meme that asks the elevator question often asks about an even more radical constraint: "What would we do together if I was going to die the next day?" is a really common and, for me, baffling question. These memes often ask about the gift of a sum of money as well. The armchair psychologist in me suspects that the people who write these memes are often feeling plenty constrained already in terms of money, and that the way our culture has gone over the last 80 years means that they are not very constrained socially, and perhaps feeling a little agoraphobic about it. We've gotten rid of a lot of the old obligations. People who lunch with their second cousins are presumed to be doing so out of actual commonality or affection rather than a sense that One Must Spend Time With Family. Most of the old fraternal organizations are dying, because, "Your grandpa and your uncle Bob were part of this group!" is not a reason for most people to join a group. Neighbors don't necessarily know each other socially; on the other hand, you are not often stuck at a horrible stultifying party with neighbors with whom you have nothing in common but house proximity. If you want to see people, if you want to be around people, you have to act, because the cultural default does not give you people, for the same reasons that it is not forcing unwanted people upon you.

I wish the meme writers could enjoy that as a sense of opportunity and a sense of abundance, as a freedom. I wish they would think of it in terms of a gift -- "What would you do if you got $10K suddenly?" maps a lot more closely to "What would you do if we were going to spend the weekend together just hanging out and having fun?" than to questions about being trapped or condemned to death. If you find the idea of having a few hours in an elevator with a friend to catch up or get to know each other appealing, maybe it's time to drop them an e-mail or pick up the phone or arrange to have a cuppa together. Maybe it's time to recognize that human connection doesn't have to be forced on us with no escape, we can choose it.

Or maybe it's just time to write some different questions because some of these have been answered a million times and we're starting to have rote or overthought answers. Your choice.

*My theory is that most question memes were written by 15-year-olds hoping for make-out offers. "Do you think I'm attractive?" If you want to ask this of someone, ask it, don't hide behind it just being one of the standard questions! for a meme you totally didn't write! you just passed it on! it's not your fault! Nobody bought that when you were 15. They're not buying it now.

**Not my situation. [ profile] scottjames and I were trapped with thirteen of our closest homeroom classmates and our homeroom teacher in an elevator only slightly than my desk. It had a 450# weight limit. Hint: we exceeded that.
mrissa: (getting by)
My grandparents have called. They're safe. They had been to that mall earlier in the day -- of course they had. Westroads was the mall of my childhood; my family's in and out of there for all of December. I have no reason to think that any of our family friends in particular would have been there, and as my grandparents left the mall to go to a friend's funeral, I expect the odds are lower, not higher, that someone close to me would have been there.

The next TV announcer who asks whether camo is normal in Omaha (answer: yes, moron, it's a military town) is going to get my mom's boot to his butt, but only because she's faster than me.
mrissa: (Default)
Dear E-mail Interface,

Please do not auto-correct "et al" to "at all." "Dear [name] at all," makes us both look stupid. Well, it would. I corrected it. Now it just makes you look stupid.

(In fact, didn't I tell you not to auto-correct anything? I'm changing that option again, but how did it get changed back? Harumph.)


Dear Clothing Manufacturer,

I realize why it would be beneficial to you to sell overlapping but non-identical sets of clothing in your stores and on your website: you can try to sell more things to people if they have to go both places to see the stock. But can you please not pretend that it is some kind of favor to me? "Internet exclusive" means "available to anyone who has a computer or can get into a public library." Just admit that it's for your own benefit as a for-profit business, since we already know that's what you are, and move along.

Not impressed,

Dear My College,

This "making an unmarked field of people's former homes" thing: it does not do you credit. Engraved paving stones cost less than $100 apiece. Look into it. Also: it'll be ten years in March. Plant some damn trees around the Shakespeare Pit already. Without the trees it's just a hole in the ground. Nobody likes a denuded Shakespeare Pit. It's unsightly.

Good job on seeing how cool Jen is, though. Rah rah rah, well done skool skool skool, as the man says.

Oh, all right, at least a little bit of love,
mrissa: (andshe'soff)
Well, we'll be heading out before too long here, so I'm shutting down the computer. I'll be back on Monday. Hoping I return to find that [ profile] timprov is over his flu and tasks have not multiplied unduly in my absence, because I'll only have a day to get back on top of them.

Have a good weekend.

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