Saturday, February 28, 2009

oldest words in English identified

The BBC tells us that the oldest words in English have been identified. (Via Heroic Age.) I feel as though I should show a series of mugshots of scowling words with bad hair and greasy skin...

Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage.

The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct - citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first casualties.

Which words do you think deserve to last forever? Which would you expunge tomorrow if you could? Today I'm enjoying 'unctuous' (sadly more Latin than English).

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Friday, February 27, 2009


Woo hoo! Kelley's novella, Dangerous Space, is a finalist for this year's Nebula Award. You can read it free here.

And, y'know, you really should go read it. Here are some things people have said about the novella and the collection of the same name:

"It takes a special talent to write about emotions this raw without embarrassing yourself. In Dangerous Space, the very talented Kelley Eskridge offers tales of the human heart that are searing, moving, and true."
Matt Ruff, author of Bad Monkeys

"Richly imagined, moving, and very sexy, these stories about music, art, sex, and identity will make you rethink all the categories you thought you knew."
Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

"...a well written and intriguing collection from a truly fearless author."

"...sometimes a writer just sweeps me off my feet and I forget what I was supposed to be doing. Such is the case with the title story from Kelley Eskridge's collection Dangerous Space. While the year is less than half over, this has garnered my vote as one of the best stories of the year."

"...this collection from wonderfully primed-for-action Aqueduct Press shoots onto the must-have list for this year -- and probably onto a few award ballots as well... Eskridge is one of those writers who, in a better world, would not even be thought of science or speculative fiction. She'd just be called: good writing."
The Agony Column

"This is the best collection of stories I've read in forever. Cutting edge in every sense, Eskridge mines the raw edges of emotion -- love, lust and fear -- and places her characters in settings just a bit different to our own -- the near future, the recent past, or the slightly fantastic. If you like Kelly Link, Nicola Griffith or Neil Gaiman, you'll love Kelley Eskridge."

"Eskridge does a wonderful job describing the ache of love (the beautiful desperation of human relationships!), and she tests the limits of our vicarious, readerly hearts..."
The Seattle Times

"...compelling and imaginative stories peopled with characters that may live in worlds which are purely fictional but who struggle with everything that it means to be human."
The Short Review

"This story ["Dangerous Space"] had me completely in, as they say, the palm of its hand, putty-like. Highly, highly recommended, just like the entirety of the collection."
Shaken & Stirred

"As short story collections go, this is one of the best of the year, with incisive, often subtle character studies combined with down-to-earth contemporary fantasy elements...The great writing here is at the service of fascinating people and unusual situations."

"Kelley Eskridge can sound like Samuel Delany, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, or Joanna Russ, while still maintaining her own unique throaty, modulated voice."
Asimov's SF

"This is the kind of art that the word "queer" fits perfectly. The stories aren't specifically lesbian, and they're not specifically gay, but they render any sexual preference wondrously possible. The biological gender of Mars, protagonist of three of the collection's seven stories -- including the hypnotic novella-length title tale -- is never specified: some will read her as a woman, and her passion for the mesmerizing male lead singer of an indie rock band as straight; some will read him as a man, and the same passion as gay. Eskridge juggles the ambiguity with surefooted physical, emotional, and sexual intensity."
Q Syndicate

"Eskridge proffers a tantalizing taste of just how good and savory futuristic fiction can be."
The Baltimore Sun

"The innovative talents of an emerging Seattle science-fiction writer, with her raw yet heartfelt perspective, are showcased in a fine new collection of short fiction, including an indie music novella that provides the book's title."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"With its kaleidoscopic variety of settings and prose styles, this short story collection by Kelley Eskridge is comprised of many spaces rather than just one... Eskridge is skilled at creating atmosphere and physical detail, and uses her skill to present thought-provoking stories, ideas that linger in the mind's eye."
Strange Horizons

"Kelley Eskridge doesn't tell you everything. She leaves space in her stories for readers to work things out for themselves. But here's the rub: She sets things up so that readers will not always be completely sure what they've found. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they may not be completely comfortable with what they find. As the title implies, these spaces are dangerous."
SF Revu

So you see--you have to go download that .pdf right now. Go on.

With any luck at all, we'll be in Los Angeles in April to cheer every single finalist in every single category. This year, pleasingly, we know almost everyone. Here are they are:

"Little Brother" - Doctorow, Cory (Tor, Apr08)
"Powers" - Le Guin, Ursula K. (Harcourt, Sep07)
"Cauldron" - McDevitt, Jack (Ace,Nov07)
"Brasyl" - McDonald, Ian (Pyr, May07)
"Making Money" - Pratchett, Terry (Harper, Sep07)
"Superpowers" - Schwartz, David J. (Three Rivers Press, Jun08)

"The Spacetime Pool" - Asaro, Catherine (Analog, Mar08)
"Dark Heaven"-Benford, Gregory (Alien Crimes, Resnick, Mike, Ed., SFBC, Jan07)
"Dangerous Space"-Eskridge, Kelley (Dangerous Space, Aqueduct Press, Jun07)
"The Political Prisoner" - Finlay, Charles Coleman (F&SF, Aug08)
"The Duke in His Castle" - Nazarian, Vera (Norilana Books, Jun08)

"If Angels Fight" - Bowes, Richard (F&SF, Feb08)
"Dark Rooms" - Goldstein, Lisa (Asimov's, Oct/Nov 07)
"Pride and Prometheus" - Kessel, John (F&SF, Jan08)
"Night Wind"-Rosenblum, Mary (Lace and Blade, ed. Deborah J. Ross, Norilana Books,Feb08)
"Baby Doll" - Sinisalo, Johanna (The SFWA European Hall of Fame, James Morrow & Kathryn Morrow, Ed., Tor, Jun07 (trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston)
"Kaleidoscope" - Wentworth, K.D. (F&SF, May07)

Short Stories:
"The Button Bin"-Allen, Mike (Helix: A Speculative Fiction Quarterly,
"The Dreaming Wind" - Ford, Jeffrey (The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Ed., Viking, Jul07)
"Trophy Wives" - Hoffman, Nina Kiriki (Fellowship Fantastic, ed. Greenberg and Hughes, DAW Jan08)
"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" - Johnson, Kij (Asimov's, Jul08)
"The Tomb Wife" - Jones, Gwyneth (F&SF, Aug07)
"Don't Stop" - Kelly, James Patrick (Asimov's, Jun07)

The Dark Knight - Nolan, Jonathan; Nolan, Christopher, Goyer, David S. (Warner Bros., Jul08)
"WALL-E” Screenplay - Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter (Walt Disney June 2008)
The Shrine - Wright, Brad (Stargate Atlantis, Aug08)

"Graceling" - Cashore, Kristin (Harcourt, Oct08)
"Lamplighter" - Cornish, D.M. (Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 2, Putnam Juvenile, May08))
"Savvy" - Law, Ingrid (Dial, May08)
"The Adoration of Jenna Fox"-Pearson, Mary E. (Henry Holt & Company, Apr08)
"Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her
Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) -Wilce, Ysabeau S. (Harcourt, Sep08)

I haven't read many of them this year--Kelley's novella, of course, Graceling and Little Brother. I'd like to read the Richard Bowes novelette (he's always good) and Gwyneth Jones's story (she's one of the sharpest writers out there). I've also heard amazing things about Brasyl. (Why the fuck isn't it available on Kindle?)

Kelley and I were just talking about this time thirteen years ago when we found out we'd both been nominated for Nebulas--K for "Alien Jane" and me for "Yaguara". (Different categories, thank god.) It was the first time for both of us. We were thrilled--crazy mad happy. We were painting our new house when the news came. We threw the paintbrushes on the floor and went straight out for champagne and a fabulous dinner. We got treated very strangely at the fancy restaurant--it turns out we had paint in our hair. We didn't care. It was a wonderful evening. My congratulations to everyone who's nominated. I hope you party as hard as we did that night (and might tonight...)

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shortcovers: brilliance, beauty, risk

I just posted my 2001 Liverpool* Guest of Honour speech,"Brilliance, Beauty, Risk" on Shortcovers. Shortcovers is a website of stuff--fiction and not--to download onto your mobile device. Bored on the bus? Go get a story or an essay or an Op-Ed. A lot of it is free. Some of it isn't. They also make it easy to recommend stuff to others. Go find something fab and tell your friends about it.

Shortcovers is kind of cool, and very easy to use. I think I might post a few more things there. (In fact, while I was thinking about it I put up my Dozen Daily Delights. So easy.) They'll take anything under 5,000 words--so I could do essays, rants, interviews, anything. (Not much short fiction, sadly, as most of my stuff exceeds the word limit. And not book chapters, because the publishers have those rights.)

Any requests?

[* A Celebration of British SF was organised by Liverpool University and the Science Fiction Foundation. It was exceedingly cool. ]

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

duck on fire

Kelley did a guest post yesterday over at Learning Voyager. It's all about how fear kills focus and yet, paradoxically, how focus reduces fear. I have some minor quibbles with the semantics--I don't think it's pure fear so much as anxiety that kills focus--but the general sentiment is spot on.

I've talked before about the Armenian proverb that goes something like: get the load off your mind and onto your shoulders. In others words, don't fret, do. Some people interpret that as do do do, running to keep your balance, doing without cease so you don't have to think. Or, as we say in our house, paddling madly like a duck on fire.

Kelley doesn't say this--it's more than my life's worth to put words in her mouth--but the way I see all this is: to survive, you have to face what you fear. Kelley is talking specifically about business, but I think it applies to most things. The most important attribute in hard times is bravery.

So be brave. Stop running from the bogie monster, turn around and look it in the eye. Acknowledge the worst case scenario. Then figure out how likely that worst case is. Probable? Or just plain ridiculous, a fear image based on childhood traumas? Take a breath. Think. Build a mental model and then play with it. What If your fears. If you play in earnest, you'll find your fears are smaller than you think, smaller than you. You can win. If you think you can win, you can cope. Once you're coping you can identify a solution. Once you've identified a solution you can draw up a plan. Then you go out and make it happen.

But none of that is possible if you're running, if you're paddling madly like a duck on fire.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm

A year or two ago I came across this review in Publishers Weekly of a book by Roger Deakin, Wildwood:

In this last book before his death in 2006, Deakin (Waterlog) delights with his curiosity and affection for rambling forests in Europe and Australia. The book is as much about the woodland animals and humans engaged with forest life as it is about the trees, the rooks flinging themselves into a strong wind and somersaulting wildly upward, then diving straight down again into the woods like bungee jumpers; the Essex Moth Group clustering around a mercury lamp to view moths with poetic names like the willow beauty, the dingy footman, the clouded silver; and artists engaging with nature, like John Wolseley, inspired by the fire-struck Australian Whipstick Forest to create works expressing all the urgency and energy of the racing bushfire itself. Deakin's lyrical, sometimes anthropomorphic portraits of trees and wood are saturated with his scientific knowledge and passion: a hazel branch, more of a magician's staff than a walking stick... naturally fluted and spiraled by the strangling effect of the honeysuckle stem that still encircled it like an asp... was a masterpiece of nature, the voluptuous embrace of the honeysuckle exciting the hazel into a frenzy of cell division.

I bought it immediately, for an ungodly sum, from England. I fell in love with it. Although it's a little treacly in places, it is essentially the poetry of trees, full of that wild magic that breathes from an English wood.

I'm writing a novel, about a woman called Hild, steeped in my love of the landscape of my home country. Trees and meadow, hill and dale, coastline and fen are what I grew up with, what is ingrained in me at the cellular level. Yet I've lived in the US, among conifers and eagles, raccoons and coyotes, for nearly twenty years. The English landscape is no longer second nature to me. It's wrapped in a curiously scent-free memory cistern.

So here I am writing about young Hild who, as Anglo-Saxons did, lived absolutely in tune with the outdoors in order to survive and I find myself groping for memories that are sealed away. I realise I no longer know what the River Derwent looks, feels, smells, sounds like in April. I can no longer picture Sancton in June. What birds are singing? Are the hedgehogs asleep or awake? When do the trees blossom and come into leaf? When are tadpoles wriggling like plump commas in the pond?

I went to Wikipedia, I scoured the personal blogs of nature lovers who live in England. And still my deep, physical knowledge of the English countryside stayed behind a sheet of glass--inaccessible to all senses but sight. I began to wonder if I could do this.

And then I heard that Roger Deakin's literary executor had put together one last book based on Deakin's notes and diaries. I bought it immediately. It's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.

I'm only halfway through it and already I feel refreshed. Hild is walking through a beech spinney in April and I've only to flip to page 69, to 'April', to find this paragraph:

Strong, cold, north wind blowing. I go up the side of the field, uphill, and cross over a young wheat field to the wood. It has a wood bank and a deep ditch, and as soon as I enter the wood I am struck by the enormous carpet of lily-of-the-valley leaves, and wood anemone in flower, studded with the deep blue of violets.

And I'm there. I remember the cold loamy smell, the first brave bumblebees, the scudding cloud, the way new leaves shiver and hiss. It fills me with joy and a sudden certainty that I'm writing the right book.

I wish Deakin was alive. I would like to take him out for dinner, drink some good Spanish wine and talk about the birds and the bees and the cathedrals of trees...

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

migration, climate change, war

A bunch of climate change negotiator bigwigs got stranded together overnight in Cape Town on their way to Antarctica. They chatted about climate change and, by the sound of it, freaked each other out. The conclusion they came to over coffee and wine: if their governments don't deal with climate change decisively, "what we're talking extended world war."

[I]t was Stern, former chief World Bank economist, who on Saturday laid out a case to his stranded companions in sobering PowerPoint detail.

If the world's nations act responsibly, Stern said, they will achieve "zero-carbon" electricity production and zero-carbon road transport by 2050 — by replacing coal power plants with wind, solar or other energy sources that emit no carbon dioxide, and fossil fuel-burning vehicles with cars running on electric or other "clean" energy.

Then warming could be contained to a 2-degree-Celsius (3.4-degree-Fahrenheit) rise this century, he said.

But if negotiators falter, if emissions reductions are not made soon and deep, the severe climate shifts and sea-level rises projected by scientists would be "disastrous."

It would "transform where people can live," Stern said. "People would move on a massive scale. Hundreds of millions, probably billions of people would have to move if you talk about 4-, 5-, 6-degree increases" — 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And that would mean extended global conflict, "because there's no way the world can handle that kind of population move in the time period in which it would take place."

The thing is, this has all happened before. It was called the Migration period:

This was what destroyed/changed/forced into retreat the western Roman Empire. It's what led to the invasion and settlement of Britain by Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and the subsequent fleeing of Britain by the British to Brittany). Basically, it was the precondition that led to Hild.

Yes, I'm being simplistic. People can argue til the cows come home about politics and war, famine and plague, volcanos and earthquakes, cause and effect, but I see it all as water circling the same plug hole: climate.

Climate--whether influenced by all that Roman metal processing and forest clearing, or part of a natural cycle, or catastrophically altered by volcanic eruption--will work upon sea levels, temperatures, breeding and mutation rates of disease, animal migration, crop production, which will in turn lead to starvation and disease, and mass migration. Migration leads to conflict--to war, small scale or large.

The fifth and sixth centuries in Britain used to be called the Dark Ages for a reason. (We don't call them that now, because we have learnt to interpret evidence, historiographical and archaeological and linguistic, well enough to shed some light on the era. Now we call it Late Antiquity, or Sub-Roman, or Early Medieval, or the Heroic Age.) For a good chunk of the population, these were grim and uncertain times. Britain lost literacy, central heating, medical care, road maintenance, currency, centralised manufacturing. (It gained other things, such as sophisticated weaving skills, fantastic metalwork, expertise in wood working, new farming methods, and more.) But the change was profound. Frankly I worry about history repeating itself.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

I like to headbutt windows

On her blog this morning Kelley played with the current Facebook meme 'likes to'. I gave it a go. All I can say is, the Nicolas of the world are obviously less wholesome than the Kelleys. Here are the first ten results for my "Nicola likes to" Google search.

Nicola likes to--

--shop on Bond Street
--do 'family things'
--act as if her nighttime ordeals never happened
--have baths in the dark surrounded by candles
--accompany you to dinner parties and restaurants
--have sexual intercourse with strangers
--stress the positive reward side of the equation

Nicolas are clearly hedonistic party girls with a domestic streak. Who knew?

In the next page of search I also, apparently, like to shoot, use smaller baits, keep my curly hair tamed, have all the control and attention, think I'm good fun and very energetic, and (my favourite) headbutt windows.

How about you?

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Wow, there are wild jaguars in this country. This from Live Science:

The Arizona Game and Fish Department caught and collared a wild jaguar in Arizona for the first time, officials said Thursday. While a handful of the big cats have been photographed by automatic cameras in recent years, the satellite tracking collar will now help biologists learn more about this animal's range.

Meanwhile, a jaguar was spotted in central Mexico for the first time in a century...

I had no idea. These cats (and leopards) have always amazed me. I read up on jaguars fifteen years ago to write "Yaguara." But I never knew they were in North America. I think of them as jungle cats. The notion of a yaguar in dusty old Arizona is just, well, I keep seeing images of cowboys being pulled off their horses by a fucking jaguar and it's wrong. But it's also terribly cool. I'm feeling very pleased. The world is full of wonders.

Here's an excerpt from "Yaguara."

The rainy season was not far off. The days were hotter, more humid, and Jane worked harder than before, because when she was busy she did not have to deal with Cleis, did not have to look at her, think about how her skin might feel, and her hair. She did not have to worry about getting Cleis to a hospital.

The nights were different.

They would sit outside under the silky violet sky, sipping rum, talking about the jungle.

"The jungle is a siren," Cleis said. "It sings to me." Sweat trickled down the underside of her arm. Jane could smell the rich, complex woman smells. "Especially at night. I've started to wonder how it would be during the rains. To pad through the undergrowth and nose at dripping fronds, to smell the muddy fur of a paca running for home and know its little heart is beat beat beating, to almost hear the trees pushing their roots further into the rich mud. And above, the monkey troops will swing from branch to branch, and maybe the fingers of a youngster, not strong enough or quick enough, will slip, and it'll come crashing down, snapping twigs, clutching at leaves, landing on outflung roots, breaking its back. And it'll be frightened. It'll lie there eyes round, nose wet, fur spattered with dirt and moss, maybe bleeding a little, knowing a killer is coming through the forest." Cleis's nostrils flared.

Jane sipped her rum. She could imagine the jaguar snuffing at the night air, great golden eyes half closed, panting slightly; could taste the thin scent molecules of blood and fear spreading over her own tongue, the anticipation of the crunch of bone and the sucking of sweet flesh. She shivered and sipped more rum, always more rum. When the sun was up and she looked at the world through a viewfinder she did not need the numbing no-think of rum, but when there was just her and Cleis and the forest's night breath, there was nowhere to hide.

And so every night she staggered inside and fell across her bed in a daze; she tried not to smell the salty sunshiny musk of Cleis's skin, the sharp scents of unwashed hair, tried not to lean towards the soft suck and sigh of rum fumes across the room. Tried, oh tried so hard, to fall asleep, to hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing.

But there would be nights when she heard Cleis sit up, when she could almost feel the weight of Cleis's gaze heavy on the sheet Jane kept carefully pulled up to her chin, no matter how hot she was. On those nights she kept her eyes shut and her mind closed, and if she woke in the middle of the night and felt the lack of heat, the missing cellular hum of another human being, she did not look at Cleis's bed, in case it was empty.

It's one of my stories (actually it's a novella) that's not available for free on my website; I just haven't got around to it. If you want to read the rest you'll find it in With Her Body, along with a couple of other things.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

weather blank

The weather is changing here in Seattle. The air is perfectly still; the birds are quiet. When the barometer plummets my mind goes blank, smooth as a pebble. Today is no exception. I'm sure at some point I'll wake up--probably just in time to kill my brain by watching the Oscars.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd throw things open to you today: how's your weekend been? Will you be watching the Oscars (or the L Word)? Who do you want to win? (Do you wish they'd just kill Jenny already?)

My guilty Oscar pleasure is looking at the clothes...

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

pronouns and reader engagement

A report in Science Daily about pronouns in fiction and how readers imagine character:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 19, 2009) — While reading a novel, as the author describes the main character washing dishes or cooking dinner, we will often create a mental image of someone in the kitchen performing these tasks. Sometimes we may even imagine ourselves as the dishwasher or top chef in these scenarios. Why do we imagine these scenes differently - when do we view the action from an outsider's perspective and when do we place ourselves in the main character's shoes?


The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that we use different perspectives, depending on which pronouns are used. When the volunteers read statements that began, "You are..." they pictured the scene through their own eyes. However, when they read statements explicitly describing someone else (for example, sentences that began, "He is...") then they tended to view the scene from an outsider's perspective. Even more interesting was what the results revealed about first-person statements (sentences that began, "I am..."). The perspective used while imagining these actions depended on the amount of information provided - the volunteers who read only one first-person sentence viewed the scene from their point of view while the volunteers who read three first-person sentences saw the scene from an outsider's perspective.

(thanks, Cindy)

While it might appear to negate the whole notion of mirror neurons in reading, it really doesn't. Mirror neurons, after all, are activated when we watch *others* do things, and then we recreate the experience inside ourselves.

When you read "You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head"* you know you're not there; you're actually on the bus or in the bath or sitting under a tree. You know it's a lie. You distrust the narrative. I think that's partly the point in many second person narratives: the author wants you to know right away that you are dealing with an unreliable narrator. With the Aud books I chose first person because I wanted readers to get her perspective--and to not understand for quite a while that she isn't wholly reliable. (No one is, really, but, hey, that's a discussion for another time.)

It's not only point of view and pronoun that influence our engagement. Tense makes a big difference. Many of my students come to a class believing that present tense is more immediate, more real, more involving for the reader. It can take a while to convince them that present tense is actively disorienting in written stories. It's the language of dream and hallucination. It's a distancing mechanism. I used it for Lore's childhood in Slow River.

For Hild I'm back to my very first stamping ground (see Ammonite) of third person past tense. The irony is, the book begins with Hild at the age of three, when all children live in the now dreamtime. It's also set in an almost mythical past--fourteen hundred years ago, in a time and place from which we have no reliable written records. (Not just 'not many', not just 'a few', but none. Oh, nearly a hundred years later we have Bede, and we have a few Celtic language poems that may or may not be contemporary, but nothing from the hand of an Angle living in the north of Britain. Not a thing.) Also, I've decided upon an untethered third person--omnicience without the Voice of God the Narrator--which makes the whole thing feel...slippery. I honestly don't know what readers will make of it, but my sincered hope is that it feels natural, that it snares you, bewitches you, enthralls you, that--to go back to the mirror neurons thing--I get to run my software on your hardware.

* Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay Mcinerney.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

drop and give me 20

Exercise kills cravings. Another duh:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 16, 2009) — Research from the University of Exeter reveals for the first time, that changes in brain activity, triggered by physical exercise, may help reduce cigarette cravings. Published in the journal Psychopharmacology, the study shows how exercise changes the way the brain processes information among smokers, thereby reducing their cravings for nicotine. For the first time, researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the brain processes images of cigarettes after exercise.

The study adds weight to a growing body of evidence that exercise can help manage addiction to nicotine and other substances. It backs up previous studies, which have shown that just one short burst of moderate exercise can significantly reduce smokers' nicotine cravings.

(Thanks, Cindy)

I have direct experience of this. I've written about it in my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Here's an excerpt from that (in the form of two diary entries and comments):

9th July 1984

[...] I'm so bloody hot and sticky, I wish this weather would break. Karate tomorrow will be unbearable if it's not any cooler by then [...]

Oh--I've had more accidents--both legs temporarily out of action--which might explain some of my irritability at the moment. At karate I tore my calf-muscle--agony--& the next morning I hobbled into my room to get some clean underwear, didn't realise that some prick had shot the window through (not really the sort of thing you look for first thing in the morning!) and trod on a pile of glass. Right leg & left leg out of action. Shit. Oh well, the cut foot's better now, even if the muscle isn't.

Karate, in the Springbank Community Centre with its concrete floor; no heat in winter, no air conditioning in summer. No shower, no changing room. All men--until I and four friends show up. It was a hard school. No compromises. This is where I learnt the value of conscious will, learnt that I could run five miles, then do a hundred and sixty pushups, then sit in zazen on the concrete floor with a pole on my arms for forty minutes. If you set your will, you can do anything.

But karate was simply the conscious understanding of will. I'd been setting my will against the world and its homophobia for years. Carol and I had been harassed continually by the police; someone once pushed burning rags through the door trying to set the house on fire; a group of men tried to break down the front door, yelling about how they'd rape us, show us what we were missing. And on and on. For reasons I can't fathom, I never really took it that seriously. This diary entry is pretty typical of my attitude, which is, Shit happens, let's have a drink! Not that much different, really, from the attitude of that four year-old who made all those crayon pictures.

20th August 1984

Wrote a fable last week--I like it, but it seems very heavy-handed & clumsy. Still, makes a change from epics!

It was, truly, an awful fable. I might still have it in a box in storage somewhere. Be glad (be very glad) that I couldn't find it to reproduce here.

And it was on August the 24th that I smoked my last cigarette. Every time the craving got bad--and, oh, it got bad; I'd been smoking for fifteen years; and Carol didn't give up, or any of my friends--I dropped and gave myself twenty pushups.

Just a month or so later I smoked my last hash and snorted my last amphetamines. The combination of finally using both body and mind as hard as I could was enough. That is, I'd found two new addictions--writing and martial arts--to take the place of drugs.

Writing is addictive. It's a rush--at least the first draft is. Rewriting can be less heady.

And that's the trick: replace one joy circuit with another. I loved exercise (I still do, but my options are much more limited), I loved writing (still do, and my options are much wider, yay!) Every now and again I dream of some drug or other (smoking, mostly) and wake up with a vague longing. But that longing is a habit. I shrug, shake off the dream, and go about my life. Because I have a life. That's the difference between harmful, arrested-development addiction and joy. Addiction is all about warping the life in order to score the drug, and taking the drug is often about blotting out life; it's about narrowing one's experience, deliberately not learning and growing.

Writing is different. Yes, it's a rush. Sometimes it gets out of hand; I work too long for too many days in a row, and it interferes with Normal Life (y'know, friends, family, health). But mostly it's a valuable (indispensible) part of my life. It's my job, my joy, my primary tool for exploring the world--for deliberately seeking that change and growth that many drug addictions obviate.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. Just thinking aloud.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

a big duh: naked objectification

From the Guardian, a report of a study on photos that objectify women.

Men are more likely to think of women as objects if they have looked at sexy pictures of females beforehand, psychologists said yesterday.

Researchers used brain scans to show that when straight men looked at pictures of women in bikinis, areas of the brain that normally light up in anticipation of using tools, like spanners and screwdrivers, were activated.

Scans of some of the men found that a part of the brain associated with empathy for other peoples' emotions and wishes shut down after looking at the pictures.

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, said the changes in brain activity suggest sexy images can shift the way men perceive women, turning them from people to interact with, to objects to act upon.

(Thanks, Cindy.)

This is a big duh. Women have been saying this for ages. At least now there's some data to back up our practical knowledge. Just as there is now data (it cost $5 million to assemble, if I recall correctly) proving that toast always falls on the floor butter-side down.

Tell me you didn't think I was going to use a picture of a scantily-clad model for this post...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

most wanted painting (and not)

A follow up on the world's worst song post. The same people, Komar & Melamid, put together the most and least wanted paintings for a variety of nations. All based on polls. (The one above is what the US loves. Urk.) Almost all nations liked water/mountain/people from the old days/a four-footed edible scenes (the similarity is remarkable). See, for example, this ideal Portuguese painting:

And this Kenyan pic:

And now look at the Dutch:

Those wacky Dutch. This is really fascinating stuff.

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worst song in the world, scientifically speaking

The crack team of Dave Soldier and Komar & Melamid have scientifically created the world's worst song:

It clocks in at over 20 minutes. The trio has a Web site where they asked visitors to list their most hated sounds, be they operatic hip-hop with cowboy lyrics, swelling harps or marching-band music from hell. They claim that "fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population will enjoy this," but released it anyhow.

I listened to it. (Okay, I listened to ten minutes. I dare you to go longer.) It's not the skin-twitching irritation I thought it would be, but it is very strange, tin-eared elevator music--the kind of thing you would not want to listen to after leaving a party chemically altered. Who knows where you'd end up...

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pride and Predator

Oooh, I want to see this:

Will Clark is set to direct "Pride and Predator," which veers from the traditional period costume drama when an alien crash lands and begins to butcher the mannered protags, who suddenly have more than marriage and inheritance to worry about.

As John August points out, this is high concept. And it's being filmed by Elton John's Rocket Pictures, so we don't need to worry about them getting too tasteful :)

Suddenly, the world of film is fun again.

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ammonite fanfic

Every few weeks I list some of the search terms people use to find me on the web. Sometimes I understand how searchers got from their terms to my blog. Sometimes, eh, not so much.

This time, I'm going for an eerie few rather than a welter of weirdness. I'll start, as always, with the ammonites. Actually I've chosen just one ammonite today:

- ammonite fanfic
This made me laugh. I was talking to Kelley about it over lunch. Har har har, I said, can you imagine a bunch o' ammonites with propeller beanies sitting around and writing fanfic? What do you suppose they'd write about? Har har har... K gave me a strange look, and said, Babe, I guess they were looking for fanfic set in the world of Ammonite. I blinked. Oh, I said, I didn't think of that. And felt like a moron.

- drunk and freaky song
Oh, no, now I can't stop singing that fucking song *again*. Searcher, Kelley does not thank you. I do not thank you. My chair, which is creaky and old and not built for a grownup bouncing around and bellowing, "Let's get drunk and freaky!" does not thank you.

- 2 quotes from the left handed envelope
For what ever reason, I'm quite taken with this one. What would a quote from the left-handed envelope look like? And why only two? Five points for your suggestions.

- books own nebula and literary award
I love the 'and'. Because everyone knows the Nebula, awarded for f/sf fiction, isn't a 'literary' award; it's genre. (Tuh.) And, as the winner of the prestigous Neboola award and five Lambadas, I should know.

- do heroin users eat mandarin oranges
I do not understand how the searcher got from there to here. But to answer the question, from what I know of heroin users most of the time they don't eat much of anything. When they do eat, they're as likely to go for the crate the oranges came in, the label on the canned oranges, or the receipt they found at the bottom of the grocery bag. They get confused.

- how to avoid the cops run away hide and throw them a donut
I'm seeing a Buster Keaton film here, cue thrumming melodramatic piano...

- oatley fix-it stick
I am Officially Puzzled about this one. Five points to anyone who comes up with a good guess.

- retcon battlestar galactica
Well, they do that all the time. And often with really, really boring episodes full of talking heads: Oh, my, Ellen is a cylon. Why yes she is--her husband killed her, you know. Why yes, I did know that, and he's a cylon, too. By the way, do you believe in god? The one true god? Etc.

- what are some general things lesbians like
We like it when BSG isn't full of talking heads but explosions. We like sunny days (except in mid-summer, and then we like rain). And, of course, we like girls.

- naked women in women's self defense course
We like these, too, though have never encountered any. (I suddenly feel as though I've led a very sheltered life.)

- shameless english girls
Oh, hey, this also works.

- say it again slowly that thing about the river
Oddly, I had a zillion variations on this one this month.

- sir nicola
I'm still hoping

- ways to make nicola happy
Here are my dozen daily delights, plus a list of things I like. Shameless naked girls, a knighthood, and explosions, as already noted, also work.

- well on that note
Yes, making me happy is a good place to stop.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

why angsty teens keep diaries and write bad poetry

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Brain scientists are starting to understand something poets, songwriters and diarists have long known: putting feelings into words helps ease the mind.

"It is a pretty well-established finding that this occurs, but we don't know why," Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, said on Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

"When you put feelings into words, you are turning on the same regions in the brain that are involved in emotional self-control," Lieberman said.

"It regulates distress," said Lieberman, who studies the brain using technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, which highlights brain regions as they become active.

Lieberman's findings are based on studies in which healthy subjects lie in an MRI machine and view emotionally evocative pictures, such as scared or angry faces. Study participants touch a button corresponding to a word that expresses that emotion.

When study subjects put feelings into words in this way, the researchers noted increased brain activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region known for dampening negative emotions.

At the same time, they saw decreases in activity in the amygdala, the brain machinery responsible for processing feelings about relationships and emotions like fear, rage and aggression.

Lieberman said this may explain why many teenagers and others take up pen and paper when they are filled with angst.

"I think it certainly could play a role in why people of any age write diaries or bad lyrics to songs," he said.

"That is certainly a possibility."

Lieberman said he is now doing studies to see how putting words into feelings might help people who fear spiders or have anxiety disorders.

What I want to know is: how much difference would it make if you thought another person was hearing you/reading you? In other words, is it simply the action of forming the words (I think that's what they're trying to say) or would the effect be amplified by communicating the emotion, feeling heard? After all, this is, to some degree, what much talk therapy is based upon. But, ooh, wouldn't it be interesting if the therapist simply didn't matter?

I wrote bad poetry as a teen--but I gave it to my girlfriend. I don't know if I would have bothered if I thought no one would see it. When I write these days, it's for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's to answer a question (Slow River, Always, The Blue Place), sometimes it's to have a blast with story and explore a world (Ammonite, Hild), sometimes it's to play with a nifty notion ("Yaguara"). And I expect, intend and believe that all my fiction will one day be read--and enjoyed. It's for me, first, but then, dear readers, for you. A gift.

But nonfiction is more complicated. There's this blog, for example. It's a gift, too: a thank you for being my readers. It's also an experiment in community building. And, hmmn, okay, yes, very occasionally it's a way to vent (all those rants--see sidebar for some of my favourites).

But the essays, what are they for? They're not rants. I don't get paid for them. (Or not usually.) They don't soothe my emotions. They don't answer questions. They do, however, help me organise my thoughts. And at some point soon I want to find time to write an essay about reading--the biochemistry and neurophysiology of it, the difference between reading non-fiction on the screen and reading novels, the fate of civilisation... But not today. Today I have to go play with Hild, then work some more on my chemical lurve movie outline.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining. Birds are singing. Life is good. May you all have a perfectly fabulous day.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

I don't even have a hangover

So for Valentine's Day Kelley and I ate more delicious Indian food than you can shake a stick at, then went to the pub where we drank a few pints of Fullers ESB (yum yum yum yum yum) and then I couldn't resist the beef and vegetable pot pie. (K had something disgusting stuffed with goat cheese, shudder--though it did seem to please her.) We talked about life, the universe and everything and played guessing games about the people around us (lot of groups of men, for some reason, one or two pairs of straight girls looking eccentric with hats like flower pots--hats, inside, no wonder they don't have sweeties) then went home and ate chocolate souffle, drank tea, and watched Dollhouse.

Dollhouse was extraordinarily disappointing. It had none of the wit and verve of Whedon's other shows--not a single joke. Blimey. Quite depressing. So then we watched BSG, and it was full of talking heads. Nothing happened. Just yak yak yak philosophy, yak yak yak god, yak yak yak oh the ship has a crack in it. No fucking jokes there, either. Tuh. What a load of cobblers.

And then we ate some more. Hey, if three square meals a day are good for a person, four must be better.

Later, in bed, I couldn't stop thinking about the notion of a love potions. I literally couldn't stop. So now I have the plot for a movie all laid out in my head, and I think I'm going to write it. And yes, shit will blow up! Blam! There will be fabulously hot sex! Sizzle! Moments of comedy. Brief (very, very brief) moments of angst. Drama! A ticking clock... Oooh, it'll be fun.

And after all the beer and sugar and movie-building, I don't even have a hangover. I think 2009 is going to be a very good year.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

let's get chemical, chemical (in honour of valentine's day)

Oxytocin makes the world go round. Well, it makes women fall in love, makes us pair bond. It's a hormone released when we have an orgasm. (I'm simplifying radically here.) Go read this nifty Nature article.

For men, apparently it's vasopressin that does the trick. Oxytocin and vasopressin are very similar molecules (nonapeptides with a sulphur bridge, if you're interested); they differ only in the position of two amino acids. So it might not be too far fetched to think of someone coming up with a synthetic hormone that could work on both women and men. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Take a pill, fall in love. But, like all those fairy tales about love potions, unexpected consequences would be inevitable. What if you pop the pill and then open the door to the UPS guy? Plus, I think oxytocin is destroyed in the GI tract, so would have to be injected. Or sprayed up the nose. Or put in an eye-dropper.

The spray thing is interesting. Imagine a plane at 40,000 feet, a love terrorist running down the aisle spraying... I don't think anyone's done any experiments on polyamory and oxytocin. I don't think they've experimented with cross-sexuality. Would a straight girl fall in love with her best friend? Would those married to other people not on the plane fall in love with the person they don't know sitting next to them? Would any of these instant lovers choose to take the antidote when they landed? (Could a pilot who has just fallen insanely in love land a plane safely?) Would Government Scientists, in their Race Against the Clock, come up with the antidote In Time?? (In time for what?) What if the plane was Air Force One?

You tell me.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

lesbian Batwoman debuts in June

From the Guardian, news of the new lesbian Batwoman:

Fans at Comic Con in New York this week were treated to a sneak preview of DC Comics's highest profile gay superhero, Batwoman, described by her creator as "the kind of sexy that makes you think of a succubus with a very bad attitude".

With fiery red hair, a skin-tight leather cat suit and knee-high red stiletto boots - complete with a blood red bat symbol on her ample chest - Batwoman, the alter ego of Kathy Kane, is set to make her debut on bookshelves this June in Detective Comics 854. Her appearance follows the shock – apparent – demise of Bruce Wayne, the multi-millionaire philanthropist who has protected the streets of Gotham City as Batman since 1939.

Writer Greg Rucka said that Batwoman - who first appeared in 1957 but was killed off in 1979 - was "exceptionally cool".

"Yes, she's a lesbian. She's also a redhead. It is an element of her character. It is not her character. If people are going to have problems with it, that's their issue," he told Comic Book Resources. "Frankly, she should be judged on her merits."

The article has a link to Greg Rucka's blog with some sample art dialogue. It looks pretty cool. I've never really done comics or graphic novels but given the love Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8 has been getting, and this, I should probably just get over it. (But, oh, they're not available for Kindle. How dim are these publishers?)

Though, ooof, having said that I've looked over Maus and Funhome and Strangers in Paradise; I've read a zillion Dykes to Watch Out For and Hothead Paisan and Asterix and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers--oh, I loved those as a teenager--so it's not the pictures-with-words that don't work for me, it's the masked superhero thing. I wonder why...

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Aud's great aunt does jujitsu!

Though she sounds remarkably English for a Norwegian:

(Thanks, Doug. For another one, go visit BoingBoing.)

I love the fact that she's so cheery about the whole thing. Plus, it's very gratifying to see Aud's dictum, where's there's a joint there's a weakness, in action. If you want to know more about women and self-defense, including lots of tips and tricks that don't require much practise, go read Always.

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just read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

One day last week, when I was very tired, I downloaded onto my Kindle what I thought would be a quick read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Hours later I was still reading. I finished it the next day. As I say, I was tired and so I thought it was just that I was reading slowly. (The Kindle 'location numbers' make it hard to tell how long a book is.) So I checked on my desktop and found the paperback is nearly 900 pages. That's...long. But it really didn't feel that big. It's not boring (or not often). In fact, it's an excellent read--

--if you can stand boy/girl sex every fifteen pages, the kind where both parties are limp and exhausted afterwards, in which they open like flowers and pound like blunt instruments, and occasionally hurl crockery at each other afterwards.

I'm not going to bother with a plot precis--go read online reviews--but if it were a film the logline would read something along the lines of: Sensual, no-nonsense ex-nurse Claire travels back in time from 1948 to the Jacobite-infested Highlands of 1743 (or perhaps 1744) and fights with a perverted English army captain for the body and soul of her clansman husband. Much sex, fighting, and nursing ensue.

This book gallops along. The prose is mostly competent, occasionally awful, and once or twice quite stunning. But this book isn't about limpid prose. It is a storyteller's showcase.

Gabaldon (mostly) knows her stuff. She certainly has done her research when it comes to herbal medicine. (I'll have to reread and take notes for the Hild book.) She also manages to convey Scottishness well. Her dialogue is distinctive without being irritating. Every now and again there's a weird non-British off-note but the rest is so strong it carried me right past the false notes. (No, I can't give you an example. The Kindle is, frankly, crap for skimming through text looking for examples, and I was enjoying the book too much while reading it to stop and take notes or to bookmark stuff.)

Americans (sweeping statement alert) are not very good at Englishness, whether in fiction or doing accents on TV. Of course, English people aren't much better at doing American/s. (Oh, stop it, you know what I'm talking about: portraying, not *doing*. As far as I'm aware, there's no difference between the countrywomen of our fine nations.) I am never fooled by an actor's accent. Except once: Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica. I was truly surprised to hear him talk in his native English for a Making Of special.


The stunning parts come late in the book where (a) Claire literally, physically wrestles for the soul of Jamie, her clansman husband and (b) she asks for god's help. The former is a bravura piece of writing, taken on the volley, and the latter is a carefully honed set piece. At least that, from a fellow writer's perspective, is how they feel to me.

So I was expecting a low-grade piece of time travel romance, perhaps with a few fun moments of whacking-their-heads-off-with-swords, and got something much, much better. Something with women and men who inhabit their gender roles in ways that make them very human (while brilliantly not contravening the cliches and strictures of romantic fiction). I've already started the second book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I'm having a blast.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

read this blog on your Kindle!

Want to read this blog on your Kindle? Sign up with is a service for Amazon Kindle owners that lets you aggregate your favorite feeds and have them delivered to your Kindle in a convenient, easy-to-navigate format. You can also have your feeds delivered to your Kindle automatically on a schedule. is currently a free service. There are no plans to charge users, although it will be possible to make donations in the near future. will never send any unsolicited content to your Kindle or your email address.

I just signed up. It took less than a minute. Easy easy easy. Now I'm going to go hover over my Kindle and see how long it takes for the blog to arrive.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Australian bush fires

In the Guardian, an update on the truly terrible bushfires sweeping Victoria:

The death toll from the deadliest bushfires in Australia's history could reach into the hundreds as the devastation is uncovered in the burning and blackened ruins of towns, the authorities warned last night.

Described as "hell on earth", the fires left at least 108 dead, but police in Victoria said the final death toll would be much greater.

"I think it [the body count] will be up into the 100s ... 200," acting Sergeant Scott Melville, who has the job of dragging bodies out of charred vehicles and homes, told the Melbourne Age. "It's like a friggin' war zone up here, it's like a movie scene."

The army has been called in to help the thousands of exhausted firefighters who, for the third consecutive day, will try to put out 26 fires threatening suburbs near Melbourne.

Fifty fires were also raging across New South Wales, where temperatures reached 46C (115F) yesterday.

I don't think anyone could say categorically, "This is the result of climate change." But I'm not sure many would disagree with the notion that this kind of thing will happen more and more as temperatures rise.

In Leeds, where my family lives, it's been snowing for a week--incredibly unusual. I suspect soon, though, it will be quite usual. I'm more glad, every day, for that night in Atlanta almost exactly fourteen years ago when I woke Kelley at two o'clock in the morning and said, "We're moving!" and waved an atlas at her. Bless her, she rubbed her eyes and said, "What, now?" and I said, "No. But as soon as we've sold this house." She yawned, said womanfully, "Where?" and I said "The Pacific Northwest. Portland, or Seattle, or Bellingham. I don't care."

The next morning I laid it all out for her sensibly--geophysical and sociopolitical climate, natural resources, chocolate, beer, coffee--and she said, Well, what the fuck, let's do it! So we did. I sorts of forgot to consider the earthquakes, though...

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

don't stop to breathe

From Medical News Today, news of why it's a very, very bad idea to stop CPR chest compressions, even to breathe for the injured person:

Interrupting chest compressions during resuscitation reduces the chances of heartbeat return after defibrillation. New research published in the open access journal BMC Medicine shows that for every second of a pause in compressions there is a 1% reduction in the likelihood of success.

Kenneth Gundersen from the University of Stavanger, Norway, worked with a team of researchers to quantify the effect of compression interruptions on the probability of a return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC). He said, "We analysed data from 911 interruptions and found that every second without the blood perfusion generated by chest compressions has a negative impact on the estimated probability of ROSC".

The American Heart Association's first aid guidelines were updated last year, suggesting that the 'mouth-to-mouth' component of CPR was unnecessary. This new research supports that position, in that the pause in compressions required to perform artificial respiration may reduce the patient's chances of recovering their heartbeat.

Gundersen said, "The first priority when witnessing a cardiac arrest is to make an emergency call. Beyond this our results show that performing powerful chest compressions with minimal interruptions is of utmost importance. The quality of CPR matters and everyone should practice their CPR skills at regular intervals."

(Emphasis mine. Thanks, Cindy)

So don't ever pause. Keep pumping. Keep pumping to the rhythm of "Staying Alive." Imagine John Travolta strutting down the street and push with every thump of his heel on pavement. Or imagine the twitch of that woman's hips, the one in the apricot dress, if that works better for you :)

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

writing proces: intuitive or analytical?

From: Janine

I took the plunge and began writing my first novel. It's definitely character-driven, as I have no idea what will happen before I put the words on paper. I've never been trained as a writer, and the scientist in me is questioning the process tooth-and-nail. I've just decided to write whatever comes to mind, and save the editing for later. It really hurts my head, but I can't seem to put the words down fast enough. My inner critic keeps saying that I need a better way of knowing whether I'm on the right track.

As I've progressed, my mind has often drifted to your current project on Hild. I'm assuming that you're doing a lot of research since it involves historical events/people.

Did you do a lot of research for your books on Aud or even Ammonite or Slow River? Would you consider yourself to be an intuitive writer? Analytical? Whatever your process is, I love it.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I hope you're feeling better!

First of all, woo hoo! for starting your novel. With writing as with just about everything else, it's better to be doing than to procrastinate. A friend once told of an Armenian proverb that goes something like: get the load off your mind and onto your back. That is, don't fret, do. I think it's a useful approach. Failing that, follow the Nike ad: Just Do It.

As for training as a writer, if you read all the time, you're training. You will have absorbed unconsciously how to lay out a story, how to structure an opening so that the reader wants to keep going, what character details to include or leave out. The books to learn from are all around you. Pick up your five favourite novels and, one by one, read them, read them again immediately, read a third time, boom boom boom. I guarantee you'll start to see the bones. Pay attention. That's it. That's all the training you need. Once you've written your first draft, then it might profit you to learn how to see your work consciously, and how to edit it, but for now, just write.

Do I research? Yes. Half the time I don't know that that's what I'm doing. I'll find myself being interested in something close to hand--when Kelley worked at an environmental engineering company, she brought home magazines such as Garbage and Pollution Engineering and a catalogue (they called it a pigalog) of industrial things like emergency eye baths, drench showers, and neoprene protective gear. I inhaled them all. It got me thinking. I saw a faint outline of Slow River appearing from the mist. Then I began research in earnest.

This happened with Hild, too. I was interested for years in history, then in a particular era, then in a particular woman and her contemporaries. Then I glimpsed the novel waiting. Then I cranked up the research. Then I started writing. When I begin a novel, though, I stop researching in orderly fashion. It's too confusing to keep learning new things while working on a story. Every now and again I encounter a question that has to be answered before I can proceed (what's the 7th C attitude to dogs?) but mainly I sail majestically into the unknown.

You ask if I'm an intuitive writer, or analytical. I'm both and neither. I've been writing for twenty-five years; I'm an expert. I've talked about this before. Expert decision-making, expert creation, expert surgery--any kind of expertise--is a black box. Conundrum in one end, solution out the other. In between is the flashing decision-making resulting from decades of practise, thousands of hours of painstaking craftsmanship. It happens faster than conscious thought.

Once the first draft is complete, I rewrite. I start to consciously highlight and polish certain themes or motifs, and submerge others. It's at this stage that I sometimes do a complete architectural rearrangement. (For more on this, see the blog conversation I had with Timmi Duchamp for Ambling Along the Aqueduct, essentially an essay I call Process Porn Part 1.)

The last two Aud books were a bit of an anomaly for me. Normally my first draft is very, very close to the final draft. This was true for Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, and all my essays and short stories. For some reason Stay and Always were different. Those books were a huge struggle. Years and years of angst. Lots of joy too, of course, but the process was uncomfortably conscious. I worried all the time about whether it would be good enough.

Why was I suddenly thinking this way? I'm not sure. Possibly because for the first time I was the family breadwinner; I was getting paid six figures and writing was suddenly Serious Business. Or maybe the fact that I was writing for Nan A. Talese turned my head. I don't know. But it wasn't the pure joy I was accustomed to. I censored myself, controlled myself, behaved until I thought I was going to go mad. It was a bit like having sex with all my clothes on and without making a sound.

If you're asking for my advice, it's this: screw your inner critic. Shut it in a cupboard and throw away the key. Ride the wave. Time enough to worry when you start getting sucked into the rip. (Trust me, you'll know. For me, my stomach literally clenches. Whatever signal your subconscious sends, believe me, you'll won't be able to miss it.) For many writers, the hardest lesson is gagging the nagging parrot that sits on your shoulder and cackles, "What a load of crap! What a load of crap!" At least so people tell me. Until Stay I didn't know what all those other writers were talking about. Now I do.

So for Hild I thought, fuck it. I'm just letting it purl out. It's a joy. Even better, I suspect that what's coming out now is it, bar a little tidying, what's going to end up on the shelves. And I tell you, it feels great. So enjoy this part. Treasure it. Keep going. Good luck.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

9th US circuit court of appeals rules against DOMA

From yesterday's LA Observer:

Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies benefits to gay federal employees' spouses. That ruling on behalf of an L.A. federal public defender, and another by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski involving claims by a 9th Circuit staff attorney, raises questions about the act.

"The denial of federal benefits to same-sex spouses cannot be justified simply by a distaste for or disapproval of same-sex marriage or a desire to deprive same-sex spouses benefits available to other spouses in order to discourage exercising a legal right afforded them by the state," Reinhardt wrote in his Feb. 2 order....

Both orders are internal employee grievance decisions. Both found in favor of the gay employees, directing court administrators to give health insurance benefits to their spouses. The orders also represent direct challenges to DOMA, the 1996 act that forbids the federal government from treating same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose.

A lawyer for the staff attorney said this is believed to be the first time federal employees will get benefits covering a same-sex spouse.

(Thanks, Sarah.)

Stand back and watch wingnut fireworks. It's going to get interesting.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

in praise of neighbours

I don't know what universal good luck card we pulled in 2004 when we bought this house, and I'm not sure how come we played it so well, but I think we might have the best neighbours on the planet. We live at the very end of a cul-de-sac. Neighbours are important. All of ours (with the exception of one set on the street behind us, inaccessible because of the ravine) are marvellous.

We've shared many meals and bottles of wine (and the occasional night out watching a certain go-go dancer at a lesbian nightclub--I had fun explaining the approved method of tipping), met children and parents and in-laws, shared ice-slick drives to the supermarket in dire times, trundled each other's garbage bins up the driveway, watched cats, and checked during power outtages. And yesterday, one neighbour decided Kelley and I were looking a bit peaky, that we'd been working too hard, and she brought round a huge platter of Cornish game hens and couscous (with dates, cranberries, currants, squash, possibly cherries...) plus two chunks of delicious chocolate cake.

Kelley finished an act of her screenplay; I finally wrote the assassination attempt (of Edwin of Northumbria) scene I've been aiming at for a week. We beamed at each other. Drank beer. Scoffed a vast amount of food. Beamed some more. Then Kelley half dozed, half mused on screenplay stuff in front of the fire while I watched over her and read most of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander--a straight romance time travel novel which I'm enjoying immensely.

That's it. I just wanted to share.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Lezzys 2008

Who knew? gives awards in several categories for Best Lesbian Blog. Go nominate something fabulous!

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watermelon art

This is just mind boggling. (Via Moonrat.) People and their willingness to find beauty--to make beauty--everywhere astound me.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

wow, panorama

This picture of the inauguration was taken with a robotic camera and weighs in at 1,474 megapixels (295 times the standard 5 megapixel camera). Click and zoom (and zoom, and zoom, and zoom). It's awesome. Bonus points if you find Yo-Yo Ma...taking a picture with his iPhone. (I couldn't, but I'm told he's there so if you can, five points.)

*** Edit: The photo is by David Bergman ***

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Australian end times (more apocalypse stuff)

If you're easily alarmed, inclined to panic, and don't have access to Tetris or psychoactive substances, you might not want to read this.

A few days ago The Independent tells us of the chaos in Melbourne. Australia is melting:

Leaves are falling off trees in the height of summer, railway tracks are buckling, and people are retiring to their beds with deep-frozen hot-water bottles, as much of Australia swelters in its worst-ever heatwave.

On Friday, Melbourne thermometers topped 43C (109.4F) on a third successive day for the first time on record, while even normally mild Tasmania suffered its second-hottest day in a row, as temperatures reached 42.2C. Two days before, Adelaide hit a staggering 45.6C. After a weekend respite, more records are expected to be broken this week.

Ministers are blaming the heat – which follows a record drought – on global warming. Experts worry that Australia, which emits more carbon dioxide per head than any nation on earth, may also be the first to implode under the impact of climate change.

At times last week it seemed as if that was happening already. Chaos ruled in Melbourne on Friday after an electricity substation exploded, shutting down the city's entire train service, trapping people in lifts, and blocking roads as traffic lights failed. Half a million homes and businesses were blacked out, and patients were turned away from hospitals.

For those who live in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, you're next. (Bear in mind 45.6C is about 115F. Death Valley temperatures. And your water is running out.) No, I'm not kidding. You should move. Now. It's going to get worse. I'm pretty tired of people hiding their heads in the sand. And sand is all that will be left in a couple of years.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

MS research

For all those who have contacted me in the last week about the stem cell treatments for MS in Chicago: thank you.

Yes, I know about it. No, I won't be doing it.

What they're doing in Chicago is a less elegant variation of work done in the 1990s at Johns Hopkins by Robert Brodsky. Here's a excerpt about Brodsky from the Johns Hopkins website:

Dr. Brodsky’s major clinical research involves the study of aplastic anemia, PNH and other bone marrow failure disorders. His research shows that immunoablative doses of cyclophosphamide, without bone marrow transplantation, can lead to durable complete remissions in severe aplastic anemia. The reason high-dose cyclophosphamide is able to ablate the effector cells without destroying hematopoietic stem cells is that the earliest stem cells (but not lymphocytes) contain high levels of aldehyde dehydrogenase conferring resistance to the cytotoxic properties of cyclophosphamide. Dr. Brodsky and his colleagues in neurology and rheumatology are applying this approach in other severe autoimmune disorders including, scleroderma, myasthenia gravis, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune hematologic disorders.

In other words, if you give someone a high enough dose of the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide, it kills your grown-crooked immune system (the immune system that's responsible, in MS, for attacking the axons and/or myelin--there are competing theories--of the central nervous system, which is what eats holes in the spinal cord). But the cool thing is, the cyclophosphamide doesn't kill stem cells, that is, the pure uncrooked precursor cells. So once you've killed the crooked system, you sit back (in a bubble, or you'd die) and wait for the stem cells to regenerate a brand new, uncrooked immune system, one that doesn't indulge in myelin banditry. And, presto, you're cured (if you, y'know, survive the no-immune-system-for-2-weeks thing; some people don't).

I first heard of Brodsky's work in 1999. Theoretically, it should work: knock out the crooked immune system, leaving the pure, untrammelled stuff to regenerate a pristine system. I pestered my neurologist until he picked up the phone and had a long chat with Brodksy. I got excited. And it was at that point that I learnt no one would do this procedure for me. I was 'too highly functioning' and it was 'too dangerous'. In other words, in medical opinion, the risk outweighed the reward. I was furious: I would have to wait for years until I was too sick to walk, until the scarring on my spinal cord had happened over and over and could never be repaired, then and only then would they consider giving me a treatment that could kill me but could not longer fix me. I tried everything I could think of. No one would listen. For my sanity, I let it go.

Then--around 2004, I think--my neurologist said he'd been looking at the latest data, and the Brodsky stuff didn't work. Oh, it worked for a few years, but then the immune system grew crooked again and went back to its old banditry, attacking unwary myelin.

And then, in 2007, I heard Brodsky and Johns Hopkins had set up a business, Revimmune, to sell people this treatment. They'd managed to fiddle with the protocols just enough to make the risk/reward ratio worth it.

But by this time I was an old hand at thinking about the immune system. I had tried just about every immunomodulatory and immunosuppressive drug out there. They always made me feel great for the first 2 or 3 months, and then feel terrible for 2 or 3 years. Cyclophosphamide, in my opinion, would multiply this effect. I'd feel awesome for a year or two, then god knows what would happen.

These chirpy press releases say things like 'and then a drug is administered...' and make it sound like popping a pill. They never tell you about the pain, the destroyed veins, the vomiting and hair loss, the osteoporosis, the joint necrosis, the amenorrhea, the loss of taste (it comes back after a year or two, but it's never the same), the weight loss, the heart damage, the possibility down the line of myeloma, the swollen joints, the terrifying crash of blood counts and the rescue shots that make your bone marrow swell so that sitting, standing, walking, lying down--everything--is agony. Plus there's the constant blood work, the constant fearful waiting for results.

So, thanks everyone, but no. This is not for me. I'm sticking with the low-dose naltrexone.

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