From the “Oh, is that what’s down there?” department

At the fitness center, they post an occasional joke in the locker room, and when they don’t have a joke, they post a sheet of random funny items.

On the latest list of random funny items, one bit consisted of supposed dates for the first use of a cup (the male protective item) in a hockey game and the first use of a helmet in a hockey game, and ended with the supposedly funny line, “It took 100 years for men to realize that their brain was also important.”

This rather lame joke was wonderfully rescued—whether through poor vocabulary or the intervention of an autocorrecting spell checker, I neither know nor care—by the adjective used to make it clear that the word “cup” was intended to refer to the male protective item: Tentacular.

Decorative Brassicas

Spotted these decorative brassicas by the front walk of a house near campus, and liked them—a seasonally appropriate floral alternative for December.

Not the best picture ever—my phone had a pretty good camera for its day, but the lens has been riding around in my pocket for 5 years now.

I was near campus to meet some former co-workers for lunch, and took the opportunity to walk over to a Chinese grocery store near University and 5th, where I’d gotten a box of Ceylon tea last summer. That box of tea is just about empty, and I thought I’d look and see if they still carried it—which they do. (I’d checked on the internet, and found that Amazon was selling the same tea for $17 a box. The Chinese grocery store had it for $3.)

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Decorative Brassicas by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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Brain chemicals and artist’s dates

In my family, “brain chemicals” is the shorthand term for unmotivated negative feelings. That is, when you’re feeling sad because something bad happened, that’s normal, but when you’re feeling sad for no particular reason, that’s brain chemicals. (On the theory that you’ve probably got a chemical imbalance or something, and that you should probably see a doctor about it when you’ve got the time.) The same applies to anger, frustration, anxiety, etc.

I mention this because I often suffer from brain chemicals, especially this time of year, when the days get short and dark and cold.

I’m actually doing pretty well this year. I’m doing a bunch of things that help. I’m taking my vitamin D. I’m trying to get outdoors for some actual sunlight, any day that there is any. I’m getting my exercise in. (For many months now, Jackie and I have been lifting weights three times a week and doing an hour of taiji three times a week. I’m trying to get in an hour of walking and at least a few minutes of additional taiji on the other days of the week.) I’m being productive. I’m getting enough sleep.

Still, despite all that, brain chemicals seemed to be setting in yesterday. I was feeling over-busy, under-accomplished, and frustrated. So, I went to level two in the fight against brain chemicals, and scheduled an artist’s date.

I think of it as a date with my muse. A proper artist’s date involves going somewhere and spending time with something that spurs creativity. That could be almost anything, and if I did them more often (and I really should) I’d probably have to broaden the range of places that I go. But I don’t do them very often, so I can usually get away with taking my muse to the same few places.

I started at the Krannert Art Center. Much of their exhibit space today was full of stuff that I had little interest in, but outside the museum proper there’s a changing exhibit of student work that’s often more interesting than the work in the museum itself. Today it had the work of school children. There were a lot of interesting ideas—for example, a low passageway made of cardboard where kids who’d studied ancient cave paintings had painted their own—even if only a few of the actual pieces spoke to me.

Connected to the museum is the school of design building. They often have some student work on display in the hallway, and I rather liked a small group of pieces by students who had apparently had the assignment to create a brand identity for themselves. They produced the same elements that a brand identity package from a marketing firm would provide—a name and logo (provided in a couple of sizes and formats, in both color and black & white), together with some key terms and images that could go into a branded ad campaign.

It was everything an artist’s date needs to be—a reminder that creativity is everywhere, a reminder that there can be joy in art of all sorts.

I was already feeling better today, and expect that I’ll feel even better tomorrow.

Children and Power

Just as my brother’s kids figured out (see his post Children and Power), I figured out in about third grade that teachers had surprisingly little power over me: they lacked the tools to compel me to do anything I didn’t want to do.

Oh, they had tools that could make things unpleasant for me. But once I figured out that the unpleasantness that they could impose was limited and bearable—and, in particular, less unpleasant than spending large blocks of my time doing busywork—their ability to control me was just about zero.

I did make some mistakes, as is to be expected when important decisions are being made by someone that age. I figured out almost immediately that busywork was pointless, and started refusing to do it. It was only when I got to college that I figured out that the truth is more complex: only most busywork is pointless. (In particular, learning the multiplication tables and learning how to spell the common words in the English language are both worth doing and inevitably involve some busywork.) But there was so much pointless busywork, and I lacked the perspective to separate the pointless from the pointy.

Either of two things might have saved me a lot of grief later:

  1. Elimination of pointless busywork from the curriculum. (Then I’d never have gotten the idea that it was pointless in the first place.)
  2. Someone that I trusted to clue me in as to which few bits of busywork would eventually turn out to have been worth my time.

The first didn’t exist, even though I went to an elementary school that stood head and shoulders above others in treating students like people.

The second is a bit more complex and subtle. There were people I trusted, but I think they hesitated to admit that most of the busywork was pointless (because doing so would undermine the teachers) and probably didn’t know which things I wouldn’t be able to just pick up along the way. (For example, my dad picked up spelling along the way, and never needed to learn how to spell by laboriously memorizing the list of letters that makes up each word the way I did.)

Looking back, I marvel at just how adversarial the whole school system is, even for a student who was bright and not inclined to be disruptive.

Here’s an example: I remember a set of first-grade arithmetic drills done with pictures of counting sticks. Our worksheets would show pictures of sticks, which we were supposed to count. When the number of sticks was large, they’d be grouped into batches of 10. But my experience with school was that it was an adversarial process. To my mind (as a bright first-grader), it seemed extremely likely that the worksheets would group the sticks in batches of 10 for a while—just long enough that we’d lulled into taking it for granted—and then would start printing some groups with 9 or 11 sticks. Then any student who had gotten so lazy as to not check each group would get the problem wrong and be mocked for being so stupid and trusting as to not count out the sticks in each bundle.

Imagine what I must have gone through—imagine how teachers must have treated me in the months leading up to that point—to have made me expect that. (I certainly wouldn’t have expected such trickery from most of the other people that I interacted with.) And those were good teachers! I shudder to think about kids who have to suffer with bad teachers.

Kids who learn early that their power is greater than they imagine will end up making things harder for themselves in some ways. But I still think they come out ahead. I’m glad it’s a lesson I learned early.

Am I a bad reader?

It’s common in novels to have scenes where a character who is known to the reader is observed by another character who lacks that knowledge. To indicate that fact, the writer sometimes refrains from using the character’s name (and generally from mentioning anything that the other character can’t know).

That’s fine, except when (for story purposes) it’s important that the reader recognize that the character being observed is the character that they know.

Many writers use some physical tag that, I guess, is supposed to clue the reader in as to who the character is, and here’s where my bad reading capabilities come to the fore: I read right past that stuff.

When the story talks about someone seeing “the tall man in the black coat,” I do not automatically assume that this guy must be the main character (whom I’ve long ago forgotten was described in the first chapter as being tall and some time later as owning a black coat).

I can’t count how many novels I’ve found utterly befuddling because I never realized that “the guy in the cowboy hat” was not just some guy in a cowboy hat, but rather was the main character (whose choice of chapeau had no doubt been mentioned, but without the important caveat “by the way, in the world of this novel, nobody else ever wears a cowboy hat”).

Now, it’s possible to make this work. I remember a novel that described one character as walking “with the outsides of his feet making first contact with the ground.” When someone with that particular gait was referred to later, I never once thought that maybe this was some other guy who happened to walk on the outsides of his feet.

So, how about you guys? When a book you’re reading references “the bald man” or “the guy with the red beard,” do you immediately know that the author means you to understand that this is the character described three chapters earlier as having that trait? Is it just that I’m a bad reader?

Zero tolerance on withholding care

I’m generally against zero-tolerance policies. I’ve read too many stories about kids expelled because of an asthma inhaler or a pocket knife forgotten in a jacket pocket (or in the trunk of a car) and accidentally brought to school. Those sorts of harmless, technical violations of the rules are exactly the sort thing that should be tolerated.

But there’s one zero-tolerance policy that I’d really like to see. Prompted by the gruesome story Occupy Oakland: second Iraq war veteran injured after police clashes, about a man beaten so badly by police that his spleen was lacerated, who was then denied medical care for 18 hours, I think we need a zero-tolerance policy for failure to provide medical care to prisoners.

Every person involved in taking or holding a prisoner—police, guards, staff, managers—should be absolutely responsible for doing everything necessary to ensure that needed care is provided.

If needed care is not provided, everyone who heard the prisoner request care, saw the prisoner in distress, or got a report that the prisoner needs or has requested care, should be fired.

There should be no exceptions.


On the social aspects of wearing a reflective vest

My reflective vest

People treat me differently when I wear my reflective vest.

I bought it four years ago, for when I run after dark. But as long as I’ve got it, I’m inclined to wear it anytime I’m going to be crossing streets on foot after dark.

Last night I was greeted in a friendly fashion by an older black man who called me brother. The last time I can remember that happening was in the 1970s.

My theory, based on that and a few other encounters, is that some people see me and assume that I’m a working-class guy heading out for for some sort of outdoor nighttime physical labor job. If they’re also a working-class guy familiar with outdoor nighttime work, it prompts them to greet me in a comradely fashion.

There’s another common reaction: Many people seem to think I’m “official” in some way. Cars that would have zipped around me in the daytime exercise additional caution, just in case. People make way when I’m going down a hall, in case I’m on my way to some minor emergency. Related to that, surprisingly often people who know me don’t recognize me—they see the vest and don’t imagine that anyone they know might show up in one.

I expect the reaction I’d get would be very different, if I wore a reflective vest designed for runners. I’ve got one of those too, but it won’t fit over a coat.

Russian reprint sale of “Watch Bees”!

I woke up this morning to email from Alexander Shalganov, Editor-in-Chief of ESLI, an sf and fantasy magazine in Russia, saying that he wanted to buy reprint rights for my story “Watch Bees,” which appeared in the August issue of Asimov’s! (The name ESLI apparently means “IF” or perhaps “What if” in Russian.)

This ticks off a couple of firsts for me: First reprint sale and first translation into a foreign language.

Bought new boots

I don’t hate shopping. I sometimes say I do, but it’s an inaccurate shorthand. What I hate are a cluster of things inextricably intertwined with shopping. I hate driving from store to store. I hate the mall. I hate agonizing about the tradeoffs between choice A and choice B, especially under time pressure, and especially under conditions of imperfect information.

I’m a lot happier buying stuff on-line. But not boots. I never buy shoes or boots without trying them on.

I also dislike spending money, especially spending largish sums of money, such as the $168 (including tax) that I just spent for a pair of boots.

I think I like the boots. I wanted a pair of waterproof, lightly insulated, hiking boots. This pair is all those things, plus they fit well and feel good on my feet. I’d had in my mind that I’d get GoreTex waterproofing and that the degree of insulation I wanted would probably be 200 gm Thinsulate, and I didn’t end up getting either of those. These are just “waterproof,” which probably means that the leather was treated with some sort of sealant—probably adequate for my purposes. And they’re insulated with 200 gm Primaloft, which is also probably at least as good as Thinsulate.

I decided that I needed these boots, because last year I found myself staying indoors too much during the winter, because I didn’t have adequate footwear for cold and wet. (We get a lot of cold and wet in Central Illinois—slush, snow, rain changing to snow, melting snow, cold rain falling on snow or ice, freezing rain, freezing mist. If you can think of weather that’s cold and wet, we have it here.)

With the right boots, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get myself out to walk, even in inclement conditions. Plus, there’s the slight extra boost that comes from the novelty factor of new boots.

And, with that in mind, I’m heading out now to walk a mile or two, to start breaking them in.

Strategies for writing and revising

One cluster of particularly good bits of advice that I got at Clarion came from James Patrick Kelly. (That link goes to my Clarion journal entry for the day I wrote about it.) Among other things, he suggested that we should:

  1. Save all our rewrites until after Clarion (as a way of carrying some of the energy of Clarion forward),
  2. Do the rewrites in order of salability (and perhaps not bother rewriting any that didn’t seem salable), and
  3. Write a new story for every story that we rewrote. (Otherwise we could easily find ourselves at the end of the summer with five or six nicely polished stories, but totally out of the habit of writing.)

More recently, having gotten several stories critiqued by the Incognitos, I decided to put that advice into practice again. I made a plan to start revising and submitting those stories, in between writing new ones. But I decided that I’d write one more new story before getting going on to revisions.

I made that plan rather longer ago than I’d like to admit, because for quite some time now I’ve had real trouble getting a new story finished.

After two or three attempts at new stories stalled, I should have just gone ahead and gotten going on a rewrite. But, no. Without really thinking about it, I just pushed ahead on a plan A, even though it wasn’t working. That wasted a lot of time, I’m afraid. It was also really frustrating.

But, good news: I’ve finally finished a new story! I’ve sent it out to the Incognitos, and it’ll be critiqued at the next meeting.

And now, finally, it’s time to look at the stories they’ve already critiqued, pick the most salable, and get to work revising it.