freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Over the last year I have discovered Growing Things From Seed. There's something oddly satisfying and semi-magical about willing a whole, solid, verifiable plant into existence from a tiny, apparently lifeless speck of plant matter. In this particular case it wasn't seed or even bulbs, but rhizomes, which are weird finger-like chunks you plant horizontally without knowing which end will grow. (Teh Internets assured me solemnly that the plant works out which way is up). My three rhizomes grew, as scheduled, flame lilies, which rejoice in the somewhat hyperbolic Latin name gloriosa superba. A flame lily is beautiful and slightly unlikely, and astonishingly flamelike. They're native to Southern Africa, and I cherish memories of them growing wild in the bush near various homes in Zimbabwe. The flowers are very vivid, and in the slight dusk of a wooded area seem to float. I also discover, on growing these particular ones, that they have this particularly elegant adaptation - they're semi-climbing, in that they grow straight up but don't quite stand alone, and the end of every long, narrow leaf has the ability to curl around a thin support and cling to it. I find this enchanting: so economical! none of this messing around with growing separate tendrils.

I wanted to grow flame lilies because I've always loved them and I associate them very strongly with my childhood, but they're also the national flower of Zimbabwe. Before that, they were the national flower of Rhodesia.

I have been a denizen of my pinko-liberal Commie Cherished Institution for nearly three decades now, absorbing postcolonialist rhetoric like an unenlightened sponge, and there is absolutely no way in hell I lament lost Rhodesia in any political sense. It was a deeply illegitimate regime, founded on white privilege, exploitative and dehumanising to its black people, and not nearly as up-front as South Africa about its basic apartheid divides. The fact that the black regime which took over is equally morally bankrupt and just as destructive doesn't mitigate this in the slightest, Two Wrongs maths being what it is.

But it was also my childhood home, and I had a child's essentially innocent experience of it. Flame lilies are an extremely emblematic shorthand not only for the things I loved about Zimbabwe - its landscapes and animals, the ordered and productive agricultural world I grew up in, my family's place in creating that order - but for a sort of naive and nebulous nationalism. I felt, driving down the jacaranda avenue in the capital or having tea in the city's big department store, a subliminal, undefined pride in the country's achievements in civilisation and functionality.

I think it's significant that I grew flame lilies this summer. I was rocked astonishingly hard last year by the Dylann Roof massacre - the American mass shooting where a disgusting little 20-something white boy went into a black church in Charleston and gunned down nine people with hollow-point bullets. Dylann Roof was a white supremacist trying to start a race war. He had a website called The Last Rhodesian, and his jacket displayed both the apartheid South African flag, and that of Rhodesia. I'm slightly more detached from South African apartheid: I arrived in this country shortly before apartheid ended, and in a weird sort of way it was not entirely my guilt to feel. Rhodesia, though - Rhodesia is. Growing flame lilies was, I realise, an unconscious attempt to try and recoup some of my childhood sense of pride, because seeing that Rhodesian flag on Dylann Roof's jacket was a gut-punch, an inexorable reminder that the country I loved was really an illusion, that my experience of it was a cushioned and privileged lie. Rhodesia is now a particularly vile symbol to the kind of bigoted dickhead whose existence I find basically offensive, and in fact it always was. The flame lily was never mine.

It's hard to reconcile. The Rhodesia to which Dylann Roof imagines he belongs doesn't exist, and it would be an ugly thing if it did. But by the same token, my version doesn't exist either. It never did. It was a child's construct, crafted in blindness and complacence. And in innocence, but I'm way too old for innocence. I can grow as many flame lilies as I want, but I can't make them mean what I want them to. What they mean is now infinitely complicated and filled with guilty regret. My subject line is Magnetic Fields, who say accusingly "If you think you can leave the past behind / If you think you can simply press rewind / You must be out of your mind". I'm not sure if they're talking to Dylann Roof, or me.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I cling to my research pursuits by the skin of my teeth these days, cramming it into odd corners and for the large part watching with helpless regret as mental and physical fatigue torpedo what little footholds I can carve out. One of the upshots is that these days I go into the university library about twice a year, if that - not because I'm not researching at all, I am, but by and large research these days is done virtually rather than with hard-copy books, and such hard-copy books as are essential to my research interests are somewhat fringe and I tend to simply buy copies for myself. (Memo to self: Kindle. Because exploding bookshelves.) However, I am overdue by two months for 2000 words on the importance of Vladimir Propp to fairy tale criticism (because why pick a reasonably-sized topic, a sense of proportion is for the weak) and my copy of Morphology of the Folktale has vanished completely enough that I'm beginning to wonder if I hallucinated actually owning it, so on Friday I Braved The Library.

I should not, as a literature academic, be alienated by an academic library. Being alienated by a library is an alienating experience on a whole level above the library itself being alienating. They radically redesigned the space a couple of years ago, and moved things around, and ever since then I walk in and am immediately lost. It's a very beautifully appointed and glitzy space, and has added several zeroes onto the number of student study seats, but I realised today what the root of the change is: it's now a student-focused space, not an academic-focused space. I get lost because all the signposting is about where and how students can study, and which areas are for undergrads, and how you may use your cellphone. There are no guides at all to where you might find the actual books. The previous library layout gave clear, unequivocal maps by Dewey number, and the lack of those leaves me free-floating and slightly panicky, because on walking in, you can't actually see any books at all other than the few shelves of reference volumes in the front. I was rescued by a kindly library colleague (it's useful knowing all these people from university committees), and she commented that the head librarian is contemplating getting rid of large numbers of the books, based on what people are actually reading.

I don't want to sound like a Jurassic reactionary about this - this is the way things are going, information is increasingly virtual, and the shift to a focus on the student experience is an important and necessary address to the exclusionary elitism of academia's more traditional forms. And if I was a more consistent Academic, in the sense of using these facilities for more than about 5% of my job description, I would have got the alienation over in a few weeks and simply adapted to the new status quo, rather than spreading it out torturously over several years. But I mourn the old library, and the physicality of the experience when your wanderings among the shelves were done in the consciousness of the accreted weight of all those books. I used to read for fun in undergrad, mostly as a substitute for an actual social life: I remember randomly picking up fiction just because the name seemed significant, William Morris and Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf and John Fowles and the weirder corners of Tolkien. I'm not sure I could still do that in the new space, or if the books would be there for me to stumble upon. It's all too goal-oriented now.

And I really, really mourn my lost sense of mastery of the space. I struggle with academic identity at the best of times; to be at sea in the quintessential academic space, to be unable to locate the texts which are central to my research identity, was actively eroding to a particular facet of my sense of self. It wasn't pleasant.

I have my dark suspicions as to whether or not the new library even generates L-space. I don't think .303 bookworms exist virtually, or if they do, we're all completely screwed. It's worrying, is all. My worry is indexed by the fact that my subject line is Doctor Who, more specifically "The Silence in the Library." Because of course it is.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I am at home today with 'flu, as I am phlegmy and disgusting and shouldn't breathe on anyone, and moreover have a head full of cement. Also, I need to hold Hobbit's hand a bit, he got beaten up by the neighbourhood tom again this morning, and is wandering around all subdued, with matted fur and covered with leaves. I think the bastard must have rolled him in a flower bed.

So, being at home, it's vaguely synchronous that Tumblr is currently doing a meme about how many houses you've lived in over your whole life. I like the mental exercise this offers, and am doing it just because. Answer, as far as I can remember: 13.

  1. I was born in Bulawayo, so the first house I lived in must have been the one on the research station up in the Matopos hills. (My dad was in agricultural research so we moved around a lot between research stations). I remember the red cement floors and the terraced garden and the view across the valley.
  2. The hardboard cottage in Harare my parents lived in briefly. I think I have a memory of this, it entails a darkish living room with rough walls inset with stone, and an arch.
  3. The first house on the research station outside Fort Victoria, which is now Masvingo. It had a huge kopjie behind the house, where we used to find glass beads in the sand, and a rather twisty, dark forest with a narrow path through it to the house next door where we went to play with a girl called Kate.
  4. The second house on the same research station, during the Rhodesian War so with security fencing around it. There was a giant mulberry tree in the back garden, we used to play under it. We had bantam chickens which were pets, and my dad's pointer had nine puppies who used to seethe around in a pen at the back. There was a "swimming pool", actually an old reservoir with no pump or filter, it used to go absolutely green and fill up with leaves and frogs.
  5. The house in suburban Harare where we lived for a year while my dad was finishing the biometrics for his PhD. It was very weird to me, being very ordinary suburban in style; we had a TV for the first time in my life, there had never been reception on any of the research stations.
  6. The house on the research station outside Marondera, with the lovely trees in the garden, and owls hooting at night. We had rabbits and tortoises, and that's where we acquired the rescued baby owls we raised to adulthood, thus starting a lifelong fixation which makes giving me presents ridiculously easy. The garden had this weird stage area at one end, a bit raised with a bamboo hedge for wings, we used to do amateur theatrical thingies with the friends from next door.
  7. The house my parents bought in Harare when my dad left research - it was the first house they'd actually owned. It was an ex farmhouse, long and rambling, and had been done up by the previous owners, who had the unfortunate shared characteristics of being DIY fiends and rather slap-dash, so it leaked and bits fell down. Huge garden, we grew popcorn and kept goats. If you stood on the front patio and looked down the garden to the fields, you could draw a line with a ruler at goat head height under which no green thing grew.
  8. I'm not counting the couple of stints in digs rooms during undergrad, variously in my aunt's house in Newlands (tense), and Tom's mad mother's garage in Bergvliet (very dirty). The first house I rented myself in postgrad was the digs in Twickenham Rd I shared with Michael, who was a roleplaying crowd friend. It was my Honours year; I was broke, breaking up with The Bastard Ex-Boyfriend From Hell, and on the whole rather broken, and I really can't blame Michael from moving out in a marked manner. The house had absolutely no furniture bar a bed, stove, desk and kitchen table, and was consequently rather good for gothy parties with lots of dancing.
  9. After a disastrous year in a flat with an anal-retentive semi-friend, the next house was the Osborne Rd digs of legend and song, variously with Michelle, Dylan and a different Mike. Those were slightly insane and very enjoyable years. Highlights included that legendary party with both gluhwein and cheese fondue, and, possibly not unrelated, ripping up the ancient and horrible carpets in favour of the lovely pine floors. We had a parade of cats who mostly expired or moved out mysteriously, including Pixie and Polonius (black siblings), the dreaded Widget, her five kittens, and finally the legendary Fish.
  10. After Dylan's mother reclaimed the house, I spent a couple of months in a different house with Michelle and Michael, who were by that point a couple; it was white and clinical and in Harfield Village.
  11. Then Mowbray, three years in an old Victorian on the railway line with Donald, who was a bit laissez faire as home owners go and declined to upgrade the security in any way. After about the fifth burglary was actually an armed robbery, I moved out. Donald is a psychologist and saw clients in the front room; it wasn't particularly compatible with my tendency to run about three different societies (roleplaying, SCA, tai chi) from the house simultaneously.
  12. The domicile of the Evil Landlord, for fifteen years. Good lord. I don't need to tell you anything about that if you've read my blog at all...
  13. My current house, which is unlike all of the above in being mine, mine, mine and never leaving. Which is a catchphrase from the Michelle/Dylan days.

    I have lived in lots of houses, she says with exemplary obviousness. Can anyone top that total? On mature reflection, while I have lived with lovely people on the whole, I really like being on my own.

    (My subject line is from the Brian Eno/David Byrne album, which offers pretty much the definite anthem on this theme unless you count Madness).
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
When I was in my last year of junior school, i.e. aged 11 or 12 or so, I had the lead role in a school play. Well, to be precise, in the small, serious mini-play which served as the opener to the school's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, in which I was a member of the chorus. Possibly the lead member of the chorus, come to think of it, the director used to give me the mike when the chorus was being more than usually unintelligent about their timing, pointing inexorably to the fact that I am somewhat musical but have little or no actual voice. That was a horribly over-regimented production of Joseph, rehearsed to the point where, to this day, I have a party trick where I can still recite all of the colours of the amazing technicolour dreamcoat, which I learned obsessively because I was terrified of the director and he used to yell if you weren't word-perfect. (Red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ochre and peach and ruby and orange and violet and fawn and lilac and... I'll stop now.) I can also, if challenged, sit down at the piano and play most of the gosh-darned songs. That director was a scary man.

But the point is, I'm really bad at acting, because of extreme self-consciousness and the tendency to freeze and go deer-in-headlights when undue attention is paid me by rooms full of strangers. The small, serious mini-play in which I played the aforementioned lead role was a horrible little effusion written by said scary director, and acted entirely and rather reluctantly by his Standard 5A class. It was medieval in setting, possibly engendering a hopeless imprinting which explains my helpless compulsion towards the SCA, and my lead role was that of a girl who's almost burned at the stake as a witch because her village thinks she's weird. (Clearly, given the dynamics of my Standard 5 class, he was casting to type). I can still recite some of her long, pretentious speeches. "I was Petronella Savrolet, and I was young. My father was an officer in the Black Watch. He died, and I was left alone in the house." I think they were burned into my skull by sheer terror. (I did like her long white lacy dress and cape, though. Further SCA implications).

Fortunately the nature of the character meant that stage fright was largely indistinguishable from actual acting, and my subsequent career suggests that the ability to give long, pretentious speeches with bell-like clarity to a large audience was inscribed somewhere on my DNA. Those weren't the problem. The problem was the part where actual acting was unavoidable. There was a bit towards the climax of the play, when the villagers are all crowding round and waving pitchforks and shouting "She is not like us! she must be burned! she is a WITCH!" where I was supposed to scream and faint. Weirdly enough, given that I've never had any dramatic training at all, the fainting was no problem, I crumpled very gracefully to the ground without even thinking about it very much, and retained the ability in later life - I probably still could if my knees wouldn't immediately detach with extreme prejudice. Somewhere in my DNA is also clearly one of those small, furry creatures who play dead when terrified.

What I couldn't do is scream. The degree of noise and social violation encompassed by simply throwing my head back and letting rip was absolutely unthinkable. Even with the completely terrifying director looming over me threateningly and mocking my inhibitions, I couldn't do it. (He was a bastard, that man). He eventually had to employ one of my classmates, the rather sweet guy who played the minstrel who rescued me at the last minute from fiery, inhibited death, to stand in the wings and scream on my behalf. It must have sounded rather odd.

I had a point in all this. One of them was to actually blog something, because I haven't for over a month, and because a random memory hit me and this flow-of-consciousness thing strikes me as being a reasonable strategy in trying to get back to blogging. The other is to realise how emblematic that little anecdote is, and how far I've utterly failed to overcome some of those issues as a (technically) grown-up. Still hopelessly self-conscious. Still unable to scream even when threatened. Still inclined to wait passively until rescued. Thus still prone to spend several weeks depressed and hermitting, and not blogging or socialising, and to have it be functionally impossible to ask for help or even allow the feeling to be seen, particularly. When in doubt, play dead. Can still collapse and huddle, apparently. Can't scream.

I'm sorry I haven't seen anyone much, lately. I shall try to Be Better, and to aim, at the very least, for quiet, plaintive meeping. Or, at the very least, blogging. There may be more flow of consciousness, this was cathartic. You Have Been Warned.

(My subject line is mostly because I've been playing Mass Effect again, and it does tend to colonise one's imagery.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
The ALS ice-bucket challenge is making me feel really odd. However valid the fund-raising and consciousness-raising aspect of the whole thing, there's a bizarre disconnect between a celebrity meme and the thing that killed my dad.

I love BC's take on it, but I can't really laugh at it. Then again, I still can't really cry about my dad. Maybe the painful mix of message is appropriate, after all.

(My subject line is Swinburne's "Garden of Proserpine", still my favourite poem about death, and the one that most encapsulates the relief when my dad was finally able to escape. And I'm sorry to be so morbid.)


Friday, 13 June 2014 08:46 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Right, well, thank fuck that's done. I emerge from two weeks with my head down on this bloody paper, having just sent 6000-odd words off to my nice ex-supervisor so that she can confirm my argument isn't actually on crack. I am buggered. I've been putting words onto the damned screen for up to six hours a day for two weeks from the midst of a 15-volume pile of critical tomes, while simultaneously writhing with distaste and hating the universe in general and everything in it in particular, with special reference to African film and all its works. It's been very slow and torturous, and I'm still not convinced I'm safe from being ceremonially lynched by a mob of petulant postcolonialists, but the worst is over. Even if there are giant flaws in my argument I'm now editing rather than writing, and it's the writing which is like drawing blood at the moment. In the unsexy non-vampire way.

I suffer from existential crises when doing this sort of thing. I start disbelieving in my own academic existence, and it makes the writing process really rather hard. At least if there are words on the screen for me to work with I have some evidence in favour of my status as tangible and instrumental. Really, a lot of my life is spent as a sort of a wistful academic ghost.

The particular bugger about this bloody paper has been that I've felt impelled to write it to the exclusion of almost everything else. This means that I have not done interesting things to my nice house (newsflash: I still love living on my own even when I hate the universe because academia), or adequately paid attention to my cat, or done any socialising, really, that hasn't entailed jo&stv battering down my door and either plying me with food or dragging me out. Which means there was really rather enjoyable tango at the Crypt on Tuesday, but otherwise not a lot. It's not that I hate everyone, I promise.

I am also on leave for the next ten days, three of which will include an entirely self-indulgent jaunt to Barholomeus Klip, that luxury farmhouse guest lodge thing with the amazing and practically continuous food. I can't really afford this, I'm pre-emptively spending a chunk of my November bonus, but I decline to feel remorse or guilt. Stuff it. I've earned it. Not to mention the fact that it's the end of the first semester and I'm more than somewhat dead on my feet.

So, how is everyone? Are any other Capetonians cordially freezing to death at the moment, or is it just me? It's been icy, down in the 6-degree range, with snow on them thar hills. The air has teeth.  I have unearthed my Giant Coat of Sweepingness and have been sashaying up to campus every morning imagining I'm Sherlock. It adds a certain useful layer of impatient disdain to the interactions with students. I hope you are all well, and warmer than I.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I didn't do the official year retrospective post last year, possibly as a result of the major fit of pique which resulted from those bastards nicking the television last New Year's Eve while we were off partying. Since it's quite a nice exercise in stock-taking I am hereby resuscitating the retrospective tradition, pausing only to note with some pleasure that no actual bastards robbed the house last night while we were off having civilised six-course dinners for eleven at jo&stv's. (Memo to self, post that recipe I invented for the mushroom salad thingy). I shall also, by way of comparison, briefly survey 2012, because the gap is irritating me like a missing tooth. Can you tell that I'm the kind of computer gamer who absolutely has to visit every corner of a map and pick up all the loot? You probably can.

Weirdly enough given that this year was characterised by a giant month-long depressive slump somewhere in the middle of it, I think it's generally been a more positive than negative year in my personal universe. It's been mostly blissfully free of massive personal or medical disasters, and I'm certainly feeling more functional and on-track in basic life issues than I was a year ago - some unresolved things that were hanging over my head have finally been resolved, like cars and house agents. There's some evidence that fairly intense therapy may actually have some utility: while I can't say I've solved all my self-sabotaging tendencies, I'm far more aware of them than I was, and generally less likely to be destructively hard on myself. I feel slightly more confident, slightly more open, and rather more likely to do things I want and need to do without feeling that other people's needs should come first. Yay therapy.

  • Things achieved by me this year: The writing up and submission of two papers, plus various encyclopaedia entry updates and a couple of new ones (one submitted already, the other to be submitted really soon now since the final deadline was yesterday). An invitation to contribute a chapter to a rather prestigious fairy-tale film anthology. A driver's licence and a spanky new car. The start of an actual exercise routine, in a small but so far reasonably consistent way. A sense of improved management of fatigue and associated bodily ills. The gradual re-focus of my job towards more interesting policy-setting rather than administrivia. General validation of my work achievements by various Deans and other superiors. Ongoing relationships with lovely and essential friends.
    (Things achieved in 2012: more international travel on (a) my Cherished Institution's dime (two fairy-tale conferences) and (b) as a keynote speaker partially funded by the conference (that Harry Potter one). After really rather a lot of HR wrangling, the upgrading of my post and job description to bump it up a payclass and include a 10% research/teaching component. A learner's licence. A new agent for the French house. A therapist.)

  • Things discovered by me this year: Ipads, Nimona, truffle oil, the reality of depression, taxis, fresh broad beans, Blu-Ray, subject line footnote refs, Sherlock fanfic, evening constitutionals, Captain Marvel, mole mapping, freeform LARP-writing, social self-preservation, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Benedict Cumberbatch, Vampire Weekend.
    (Things discovered by me in 2012: Veronica Mars, Tamora Pierce, Tumblr, Goats, WordPress, subject line reference posts, Phryne Fisher, Avengers fanfic, Kingdoms of Amalur, Scotland, the Lake District, Ghent, Kristen Cashore, madly ordering internet art, Chrome, Kickstarter, Sherlock.)

  • Things achieved by other people this year which affect me: the Evil Landlord's acquisition of a girlfriend.

  • Things not achieved by me: as usual, fleeing the country, crushing academia beneath my booted heel, enough writing, enough exercise. Although I think I have failed to meet many of these goals rather less catastrophically than some previous years.

  • Resolutions for the new year: continue upward trends wherever possible in writing, exercising, socialising, self-management. Try to move out of ruts and comfort zones. Be, wherever possible, happy.

A ceremonial happy new year to all of you lot. I hope it exceeds all positive expectations.

Subject line from "Auld lang syne", for fairly obvious reasons.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I've been on a bit of a quest over the last year or so to update the artwork in my living space, which has hitherto tended towards slightly amateur block-mounting of random posters, some of which date back to undergrad and damned well look their age. This is something of a solitary quest: the EL's indifference to home furnishings of a decorative nature verges on the sublime, and his input stops abruptly at the heraldic shield over the mantlepiece. My own taste is very much towards pop art, often with a fan twist, and I have made merry hay with various internet art sites and the local framer, with results which would probably cause exquisite pain in anyone with actual artistic chops such as I do not in any way possess. However, I am deeply happy with my Ursula Vernon and Martin Leman cats, giant greeny-blue stylised owl, Firefly silhouette collection and those dreamy, alienated superheroes in the atmosphere above Earth. This particular picture is in my bedroom, generously sized and properly framed (the slightly small image is all I could include, because of the artist's completely legitimate protection of her work on her website). Noelle Stevens also produces Nimona, which is possibly my currently favourite web comic; I adore the slightly spiky, faux-naive precision of her images.

I love her art, but I also loved the theme here: happy introversion, with that fascinating colour inversion which puts all the madly partying people in sombre blues and purples, and the girl/cat/tea/book ideal in warm orange and peach. It encapsulates everything that is currently true about my ability to interact with people, particularly at the moment with the merry gang of depression/fatigue/glandular fever/sinusitis having its wicked way with my hapless form. (Not nearly as savagely as a few weeks ago, but there are lingering traces).

See, the weird thing is that I am predisposed to quite like people. My job requires that I engage empathetically with a continual string of distressed students, and after six years of this I still like students and wish to improve their lives to the best of my ability. I'm good at empathy. My therapist, poor lady, spends half of her life hacking through the thickets of what I think other people are feeling in order to get at my own heavily-protected feelings, and we still have that argument about the extent to which it is ok to prioritise other people's needs over your own. (For the record: more often than she thinks it is). I love my friends, and stand firmly by my assertion that I have the loveliest friends in the known universe - and in that I include the bunch of you who hang out here and who I have never actually met in person, or who I see only every few years when we coincide continents. I love dinners with friends, mutual tea-drinking sessions, role-playing games, movie evenings. I have been known to cautiously enjoy parties. But, ye gods, it has to be at carefully spaced intervals, and on my own terms.

Part of the problem is, I think, crowds. Students are probably okay because they come through my door mostly singly or in pairs; they don't overwhelm me with input. I don't deal well with having to force my way through herds of gazelles in those mad fifteen minutes between lectures, and generally try to time any movements out of my office not to collide with them. But even if I have to navigate campus crowds, I know it's temporary - I can psych myself up for it, and pace my endurance knowing that it's finite. That's the other half of it - having, in the immortal idiom of the internet, sufficient spoons. Dealing With People is a finite allocation of energy. At the end of the day it tends to be gone, which is why I don't socialise much during the week. I can do parties, particularly if they're full of people I know, and alcohol helps, but I need to get a good run-up at mental preparation, and I've left a hell of a lot of parties very early over the last couple of years.

So, this giant chunk of introspection brought to you courtesy of the fact that I told my book club last night that I'd be taking a sabbatical from it for a while, because I can't do it any more. Part of the problem is that I'm not reading book club books, which sit in my bookshelf reproachfully and weigh on my conscience, but it's also about energy and groups. It's only six or seven people, but there tends to be lots of wine and chat, multiple streams of discussion and catch-up and laughter, and while I enjoy it in many ways, it also exhausts me. They're lovely ladies, but over the last few months I've missed several sessions, and have increasingly had to exert supreme mental discipline to persuade myself to attend the few I did make. I don't use socialising to recharge; it drains energy rather than bolstering it. It also, regardless of how much I like the people, makes me anxious, often only subliminally, but when I get home after any social evening I always require at least an hour of something solitary and soothing - computer games or reading fanfic the current favourites - before I can actually unwind enough to sleep. This does not work well with either insomnia or fatigue.

So, yes. I love that picture. It shows the happy introvert. Better still, it shows the happy introvert quietly recharging, so that when energy levels permit, I can leap out into the world and engage with all the people I really like. Because introversion is not misanthropy, and there's only so much you can get from cats.

Subject line from early Eurythmics, specifically "Savage", which is what was randomly playing off my MP3 player in the car this morning, but which is one of my favourites of theirs despite its possible slight dodginess. You can play with me there sometimes, if you catch me in the mood.

tuned to a dead channel

Wednesday, 7 August 2013 05:11 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I do not appear to feel much like blogging at the moment. Right now that's possibly because I have a Horrible Cold In The Head, courtesy of my mother, who also has a Horrible Cold In The Head which she picked up from my niece. Children are plague pits. Fact. Anyway, we're both dragging ourselves around the house gravitating to heat sources (it's bloody cold, there must be snow on the mountains), her with a pestilential snuffle, me with a head full of cement. I have re-read two-thirds of my Phryne Fisher collection in the last three days. Bohemian flapper detectives may be keeping me sane.

In default of anything more intelligent, I present for your delectation the intelligence of others.

This is an incredibly interesting interview with William Gibson in which he talks about his own influences and writing processes, but even more about the interaction between the world and science fiction. My favourite bit is the ending:

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. ... Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. ... You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

By way of antidote to all this contemporary bleakness, this is a rather lovely graduation address which exhorts graduates to be kinder, and thereby gives me lovely ammunition in some of the recent arguments I've been having with my therapist. My commitment to the therapeutic process has a very well-defined limit beyond which I simply don't buy the idea that it's OK to prioritise yourself above all else. It is an index of the success of the therapeutic process so far that I'm actually capable of arguing with her about it.

I need to go and blow my nose, again. I hope you are all well.

Subject line quote is, of course, from the opening sentence of Gibson's Neuromancer, which he apparently wrote without having any idea of where the novel was going to subsequently go. Writers' differing processes are fascinating.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
My poor little Mermaid finally died. The Mermaid was, lest this sound unduly surreal, the white CitiGolf I've been driving for the last eight years or so, who earned her sobriquet from the mystic and largely inexplicable inscription on her number plate. Perhaps as a result of this she evinced an uncanny attraction to water over the time I drove her, not always with the best results given the traditional workings of the infernal combustion engine. She always had a tendency to run her cooling system dry and overheat, and over the years I've had the radiator replaced entirely, had insane quantities of water removed from the distributor cap after an unusually deep puddle experience, had water poured into my boots via the front panel as a result of rain becoming cached under the bonnet, and had the bodywork reconditioned because of the exuberant leaks which tended to manifest in jolly Cape Town storms. She finally expired a few days ago, completely in character, when the leaky head gasket I've been pussyfooting around all year got to the point where it let water into the system, and she started driving in a jerky, hiccuppy sort of way which definitely Boded. Poor Mermaid. Always yearning for the ocean in a doomed and futile sort of fashion.

So last night the nice man from Ray's magical auto-mechanic place came round, and after confirming my diagnosis ("I really shouldn't be driving her, should I?" "") bought her off me on the turn, pressing oodles of cash into my slightly fluttering hands, detached me from the registration papers and a receipt, and drove her, hiccuping gently, away, bound for a complete re-conditioning and resale at his capable hands. I hadn't expected it so quickly, and had to do an extremely speedy purge of the interior of all the random guff which piles up over time. (The yield: gorilla lock, mermaid charm from rear-view mirror, bottle of sunscreen, bottle of engine oil for babying the leaky head with, eight shopping bags, an exploded map book, my now entirely useless campus parking disk, a coke bottle full of water for babying the leaky cooling system with, a metric buttload of random paper bits those poor sods handout at traffic lights, five nursery plastic sheets for carrying plants on, a flourishing crop of mould in the boot, and that umbrella I thought I'd lost last winter, thus continuing the watery theme).

Watching her toddle off, I felt completely bereft. A car driven over time becomes a personality, both an organism for whose continued well-being one is responsible and a trusted compatriot who bears one's chattels and one's lazy form tirelessly about the show. Her possibly dodgy Dagon-worshipping traits aside, the Mermaid has served me faithfully; she's ported me around the city, up the campus hill daily, over the Neck repeatedly into Hout Bay to visit my father, on tarred roads and dirt, in hail and pelting winter rain and February heatwaves and those amazing Cape Town winds which try to playfully blow you off the freeway. She hasn't done much distance stuff, but has successfully ambled out to Arniston a couple of times. She had a game little heater but no air-con, the world's most terrible gearbox, and a faulty passenger-door interior handle which used to randomly entrap passengers to no discernible pattern, causing amusing levels of panicked scrabbling. (I always chose to interpret it as a sign of affection, a reluctance to relinquish the cherished passenger, but I doubt they felt it). She didn't have the personality of my Biscuit Tin, but I was fond of her, and used mutate "Mermaid" into "Merrymaid" at odd moments, and drive around singing Gilbert and Sullivan.

I feel as though I've carelessly allowed something fragile and complicated with whom I have a relationship of trust to slip out of my control. Did I damage her carelessly? Will she be OK? Will her next owner look after her properly? Shouldn't I have vetted them, like you do for dogs? Do I over-invest in inanimate objects?

So I'm carless again, and slightly tearful. Various confluences of the Cosmic Wossnames have determined that I'm trying to find myself a Toyota Yaris, if only because it narrows the field to manageable levels which stave off panic attack, and in defiance of the fact that it's a silly name. The Jo, with ineffable kindliness and self-sacrifice, has volunteered to haul me around to various auto dealers on Friday, and to pat my hand gently as I try to grapple with the technicalities of test-drives and finance and what have you. There's a sheaf of car ad printouts on my desk and a page of annoyed scrawls which determine, after horrible hold music has caused the ear-wax to melt and dribble out of my ears, that it's not going to be worth going through my bank, as they hedge their loans about with sharp stakes and unpalatable restrictions. As a result of the indefinitely-delayed adulthood occasioned by indefinite grad studenthood, this is the first time I've had to do this. I'm in a state of wibble.

However, this does mean that the state of fatigued uselessness which has dogged me for the last year and a half, may finally be lifting. The things I needed to do by the end of this year included a new car, a driver's licence and a new agent for the French house. I have a learner's, a car plan which will by gum by a car in jig time, and a contract from the new agent in my inbox. Two and a half out of three ain't bad.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I went to an SCA event on Saturday for the first time in... ooh, count them, nearly five years. (The break-up post was here). Saturday's event was not actually me Getting Back Together With The SCA, it was a once-off, prompted by the serious award-collecting of three dear friends. Since some of you who read this are SCAdians, I shall take a paragraph to dance happily around, gloating, cheering and throwing flowers. Mairi Jean, Garsiyya and Katherine are now all Companions of the Order of the Pelican, generating a sudden and spontaneous mini-Pelican Circle in the midst of the Southern Tors. (Which is the new way that's emerged of talking about the Joburg and Cape Town groups, respectively Griffin's Tor and Adamastor, and is curiously catchy). The current Queen of Drachenwald came down for the event, but brought no feathered folk with her, so I was the only extant Pelican in a radius of approximately five thousand miles. Under these circumstances it was absolutely unthinkable for me not to be present for all the pomp and circumstance and heraldry and court invocations and also the hugging and crying and passing of tissues, which definitely happened.

I am so glad I was there, and so unbelievably happy that this incredibly well-deserved honour has been awarded my dear and hard-working friends. But it was so, so odd to be back in garb again, and speaking the language, and feeling the status, and taking onto myself all the weight of participation and organisation which was the cause, ultimately, of me leaving in the first place. The event ran from 10am until 5pm, with a picnic lunch and two courts; for the entire day I was pretty much in there with the organising, helping to put up tents, acting as lady-in-waiting to her Majesty, arranging court, arranging vigils, participating in the court ritual, and then getting stuck into clean-up afterwards. It was as if I'd never been away.

Several people asked, rather wistfully, if this meant that I'd be back for events in the future, and I fell over my own tongue trying to respond. Because, here's the thing. However good a day it was - and it was - and however much I still value the things the SCA stands for, it still messes with my head. I woke up on Sunday after a restless and insomniac night, and lay in bed aching in every muscle and with heavy-headed consciousness of bone-deep exhaustion, and thought, "Oh, right. That's why I gave this up." Honestly, I felt as thought I'd been binge drinking for twelve hours straight, despite the fact that no more than half a goblet of perry passed my lips the whole day. (And, thanks, Ameline, the perry was lovely!). I'm still considerably below par today, and my feet and ankles are a mess.

The problem is, I think, that events tire me way beyond the physical: they represent continual interaction, continual demands on my energy and input, at a level which exceeds several times over my actual capacity. Looking back at the time I decided to stop playing, it's pretty much at the time when I was realising that I was fighting chronic fatigue from the damned glandular fever. It's only become worse after last year's little medical contremps. And, simultaneously, it happened at the time when I accepted a full-time job which entails a large chunk of time interacting with people in various intense and demanding ways. If the SCA is about anything, it's about people. I ain't got no more people time in me, or mental energy for trying to reconcile the highly complicated constellation of enjoyment and input and obligations and work and pleasure and guilt and friends which makes up my possibly co-dependent relationship with the SCA.

I had fun on Saturday, and it was deeply satisfying both to be present for the awards and to see all these people again. (And, score! I actually still fit into most of my garb! Even if the rabbit-fur trim on that surcoat had Gone Evil and exploded into clouds of hair when looked at sternly, necessitating its summary removal). But I don't think I'll be back barring similar circumstances. Saturday was interesting because it demonstrated fairly ineluctably that leaving was the right decision. This makes me sad.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It's apparently the sixth of the month. Not sure how that happened. It's gone past in a blur of meetings and stressed students. I had a very weird dream last night in which I was exploring a derelict haunted house in the woods somewhere, and kept encountering a ghost of a 4-year-old girl in a black dress who ran through the rooms with a fairly cheerful, focused, childlike intent, and looked perfectly substantial except for her tendency to run through people. I think my subconscious thinks I'm not real.

It does mean that I'm unfashionably late to acknowledge my intellectual debts, and the Duchess will have my head off forthwith. Consequently, Words Wot I Have Swiped In November:

  • 2nd: Arcade Fire, "Wake Up", my second favourite song of theirs, and one of the ones I was rhapsodising about in the post.
  • 5th: slightly sadistic Guy Fawkes rhymes. I've always loved the phrase "Gunpower, treason and plot", it's magnificently satisfying. Something about the balance of assonance with the scansion (the 3-2-1 syllable arc is pleasingly rhythmic) and the powerful plosive punch of "plot".
  • 8th: I am quoting stoner-Fran Krantz in Cabin in the Woods. The bit where he arrives driving with a bong.
  • 20th: my contractually obligated David Bowie quote, from "Always Crashing the Same Car", slightly doom-ladenly given that I was talking about taking my driver's test. (Again).
  • 26th: the phrase is, of course, John Scalzi's. And highly characteristic.
  • 27th: "Train in Vain" is a Clash song that I actually know better from the Manic Street Preachers cover. It's one of those weird songs which doesn't actually have the title phrase anywhere in the lyrics.
  • 29th: if you don't recognise "The Hunting of the Snark" I'm saddened and disappointed.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I have acquired, by some mystic process over the last year or two, a taste for fruit teas. I've always mentally classified them, along with rooibos, as "disgusting pseudo-tea", but then my erstwhile MA student Stacey gave me a bag of something with pomegranate and apple and I was hooked. This is terribly useful: these days if I have a milk drink of any sort before I go to bed I don't sleep because of all the mucus colonising my lungs, so a soothing blackcurrant and vanilla makes a lovely end to the day. It also means that I'm going through honey at a rate of knots, as I like fruit tea with a teaspoon of honey in it (and, ye gods, is that stuff becoming expensive. I always vaguely worried about the death of bees, and now I really do).

The other night I was digging in the jar for the last dregs, and absent-mindedly put a fingerful of honey straight into my mouth instead of the mug. I haven't done that in years: I'm not madly into honey on its own, and don't eat it on bread or waffles or the like. But that taste thing is startling, even more evocative than smell. Suddenly I was back in the room outside the research-station house we lived in when I was a child of 7 or 8, a whitewashed extension reached only from the outside, via a flight of steps. My dad kept bees for a lot of my childhood, and the outside room was where he stored the frames of comb and the jars and the extractor, and the strange white armour and veil he wore to work with the hives. (And the smoker. A bee-smoker is a weird little metal box with an open cone thingy you puff smoke out of - it always fascinated me).

I have no idea if my memories of the extractor are real or partially fantastic, but they're very vivid. I think my dad may, with characteristic Zimbo resourcefulness, have designed it himself, and either made it or caused it to be made. It was a large, white-painted drum on legs, with a spinning contraption on the inside holding the frames with the full comb, a giant handle to wind it with, and a spout at the bottom to collect the honey. You loaded the frames into the spinning thing and wound like hell, and all the honey, propelled by centrifugal force, flew out to the walls of the drum and ran down into the spout, to be collected either into drums, or directly into jars. (I suspect drums, I think there may have been straining and clarifying bits still to do). The noise it made was considerable, and somehow exciting and technical. It was a very sci-fi thing, that extractor.

Honey is magical stuff. I remember the bottling process, the slow, sensuous, organic flow of the viscous dollops into the carefully-sterilised jars; the few random bees who were always bumping around the room; the heavy sweetness of the scent, and the sharp smell of the wax which was melted down from the empty combs, and which my mother used to use for her batiks. The bee-room was at once a fascinating and an alarming space, to a child rife with both the attraction of the honey, and the fear of the drowsy, disoriented bees bumbling around, with the ever-present potential for pain if you accidentally brushed or stepped on one. We were occasionally given chunks of comb to suck and then chew, the weird, tooth-coating texture of the wax a definite offset against the honey itself. I've never liked comb much. It's possibly why I loved the extractor.

Bee-keeping is an integral part of my childhood: the thread of honey's availability in our meals, a luxury taken for granted; the neat boxes of jars we, I think, used to sell; and my dad all clumsy and alien in the suit with the veil. There was a terribly unfortunate concatenation of bee-keeping with goat-keeping a bit later on, when I was a teenager and we'd moved into town; bees respond very badly to goats, and a swarm moved into the stable where the bee stuff was kept, and attacked the three goats who were living down in the paddock. My mother, amazing lady that she is, braved the swarm to rescue the goats and hauled them off the vet, she and all three of them swollen with stings. They all survived, although at least one of the goats had been so badly stung around the ears that she lost large chunks of them, and always presented thereafter a rather rakishly ragged look.

I suspect that one of the appeals of honey is in precisely this beautiful balance of reward and danger, its inextricability from the humble hard-working bee with the nasty sting, and the burning pain which marks the self-immolatory death of the guardian. Honey makes us thieves; its sweetness is stolen. And a spoonful of honey, apparently, holds the past.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Memory is a weird thing. I woke up this morning with a fragment of song on my mind, which, after mulling over it for a bit, I realised was Roger Whittaker's "The Last Farewell". After ten minutes I could, in fact, remember the entire tune. I got up and played it on the piano, more or less without hesitation. I don't think I've actually heard it for nearly thirty years. The mental images I associate with it are of Makoholi, which is the research station in Zimbabwe (near Masvingo) which we lived on until I was in Standard 3, making me nine or ten years old when I left. I mean, who listens to Roger Whittaker any more? He was one of those singers whose popularity is very much about a specific time. I don't even think my parents had any of his records, I must have heard the song on the radio, or (I vaguely think, the memory is very fragmented) at the house of one of my parents' friends.

I couldn't remember much of the lyrics, but enough (mostly the phrase in my subject line, for some reason) that I could identify the song to pull it up on YouTube and play it. It's making me cry. I have no idea what I'm associating it with - that much of memory doesn't survive, so I'm experiencing a sort of isolated gut-punch attached to nothing in particular. Of course, the time it's linked to in my memory is actually in the middle of the Rhodesian war, and has every reason to be a bit fraught. But it's so strange, that the actual event and emotion are lost, but the emblem endures with all its baggage. Music is very powerful.

So, apparently, am I. On an unrelated note, I spoke to a bunch of parents-of-students at parents' orientation yesterday, in a quick reassurance of we-are-looking-after-your-offsprings'-curriculum which seemed to go down very well (lots of laughter and nodding, always a good sign). One of the dads came up to me yesterday and showed me an SMS his daughter had sent him from the middle of orientation last week. "Am in orientation! its cool!!! Jessica is funny!" Given that my unenviable task is to make about four hours total of detailed curriculum overview somehow entertaining, it quite made my day.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I have to say, along with Hoban "Wash" Washburne, that with 2011 we experienced "a little problem with our entry sequence". The last few years have not been kind to me and mine: 2009 was father's illness, 2010 was father's death, and I'd hoped that by 2011 the cosmic wossnames would have shot their bolt and we'd experience an upward trend. Instead, the pitch of entry has caused the outer casing to overheat and the wings to fall off. 2011 was a complete bugger, marked both by my increasing lack of happiness in this job, and by a new and interesting chapter in Things My Body Inflicts On Me Out Of Perverse Sadistic Glee. I am not leaping joyously into 2012 so much as crawling over the finish line while 2011 sits panting behind me, the bloodied scraps of fabric in its jaws all that remains of the seat of my pants. (Bizarrely mixed metaphors in this paragraph brought to you at no additional cost).

Thus, the usual scorecard is somewhat unbalanced in its 2011 iteration. It also completely ignores global trends and disasters to focus, as usual, on the purely personal. Thusly:
  • Things achieved by me this year: international travel on my Cherished Institution's dime. Survival of life-threatening illness. Survival of concomitant post-illness chronic fatigue. Invitation to give a keynote paper at a conference next year, albeit a small conference. Invitation to submit paper to special edition of journal, on Miyazaki, so score. Relative success at doing my job despite being absent from it for about three months, and validation from superiors in proof of same. With assistance of therapist and my, as usual, incredibly wonderful friends both real and virtual, something vaguely approaching mental health in endurance of all of the above.
  • Things discovered this year: Dragon Age, Eureka, Lillian Jackson Braun, She Wants Revenge, retro Golden Age superhero comics, the Avengers, Skyrim, buying a new computer specifically for gaming, Dark Angel, Melbourne, the reality of deep vein thrombosis on long haul flights, compression socks, anti-depressants, Questionable Content, bras that fit, Lego, Dollhouse, growing out my fringe.
  • Things not achieved by me: as usual, fleeing the country, crushing academia beneath my booted heel, enough writing, enough exercise. Any of the end-2010 resolutions about having a better year. Most importantly, the actual writing any of the above papers owing to aforementioned fatigue. Possibly as a result of all the therapy, I am bizarrely inclined to actually cut myself some slack for this.
  • Resolutions for the new year: attempt to continue the process of cutting myself slack on the fatigue, while simultaneously resolving both to cautiously exercise towards actual health, and not to use fatigue and Skyrim as excuses for protcrastination. Writing of kick-butt papers variously for the journal special issue, for the May Harry Potter conference, and for two additional fairy-tale conferences in August/September. Fiendish political strategising to bend the structure and expectations of this job to my inflexible will. More socialising with all the lovely friends I've hardly seen owing to fatigue and inexorable hedgehogginess.
I spurn 2011 as the dust beneath my chariot wheels, and look sternly at 2012. Shape up, dammit. In the global sense, but particularly in the particular.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
It's Christmas! This has to be the most enthusiastic I've been about it in years, suggesting that, in fact, my usual state of "Bah! Humbug" is actually a response to overload, which causes me to pull in my horns and retreat into my shell like a bad-tempered festive snail. With fangs. Good lord, now I have a mental image of myself as a giant, grumpy, six-foot-tall fanged snail in light-up reindeer horns. My subconcious has apparently been at the surrealists again.

Last night I had a very odd dream about hosting a very ill and exhausted Neil Gaiman* in a completely chaotic flat in the middle of town somewhere, with a house full of demanding children and domestic crises, including running out of food, money and a working car, and a pervading sense of worry that the wretched man was refusing to rest when he clearly needed it. I woke up a bit bemused and unable to account for the images, but on mature reflection it was, I think, at least partially a Christmas dream. Under the grad student lifestyle, with absolutely no disposable income, Christmas present buying was an annual terror; giant Christmases full of extended family and cast-in-stone ritual requiring enormous effort for incongruent emotional payback, has always been a bit of a terror. In an extended family without religious belief, Christmas nonetheless imposes an inexorable set of social and cultural expectations which roll, juggernaut-like, over the actual desires of anyone concerned. I actually quite like my family, but there's a slightly porcupine part of myself which bristles bad-temperedly when forced to interact with them according to a ritual script. (As it does with a lot of social ritual scripts, incidentally, viz. marriage).

My Christmas this year is a quiet backwater, located in a city whose usual buying frenzy and overstuffed tourist quotient has been severely clobbered by recession, and with vastly reduced family requirements owing to the absence of my mother, and my non-present-buying pact with my sister this year. Festivities have consisted of a very pleasant dinner with my sister on Monday night before her family took off for their usual Arniston jaunt; a random present for my Evil Landlord; and a series of quiet days at home playing Skyrim, baking, and pottering around in the garden. I cannot overstate how perfect this is for me, to the point where, as stated above, I'm bumbling around feeling quietly festive.

I am also looking forward to the incoming hordes at Boxing Day tomorrow with unrestrained glee; apparently all I need to do to content the anti-social-expectation inner porcupine is to displace the interaction onto a non-traditional day with non-rigid format involving non-traditional people. Score!

Happy festive wossname, everyone, and may the holidays (of which South Africans have a rather indecent amount this year) bring you seasonal cheer of a kind precisely tailored to your needs and desires.

* My subconscious uses Neil Gaiman as a dream image a lot. In the New Year I shall enlist my therapist to find out why the hell.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
The auto-repair business of Ray, magical mechanic, has a bunch of youngish and very beautiful plane trees in its parking lot. They probably have about a quarter of the girth of the one in our garden, but they're lovely trees - well-shaped, healthy, full of green and those fascinating hedgehog bobbles which plane trees produce. Absolutely all of them, though, have weird protrusions from their trunks - bits of plastic string, barbed wire, that sort of thing, embedded in the bark and with bits sticking out rather incongruously. Obviously the young trees were staked when they were planted, and over time have gradually grown to absorb the material which tied them up.

It's a very strange image, encapuslating human obliviousness to nature at the same time as a sort of half-arsed, unthinking care - back when they were planted, someone clearly cared enough about the young trees to prop them up, but didn't care enough, or stick around long enough, to remove the supports when they were no longer necessary. And, in that slow, imponderable, organic way nature has, she simply engulfed the problem, incorporated it, and allowed growth and strength to happen regardless.

There was a moment, while I was waiting for my lift and pondering the odd bit of blue plastic string sticking out of the bark, when I found myself wishing that the world on a more macro level was capable of absorbing our damage in that way. Coal-based power stations, for example, folded gently into the earth. Giant forests slowly reducing to rubble our uglier cities. Four-by-fours engulfed by elephant herds which patiently, inexorably flatten them into a thin, quickly-rusting metallic film. The problem is that in the destructive stakes the human race as a whole is really a lot more far-reaching than a few bits of blue plastic string.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
The tottering piles of unread tomes which festoon my study are reaching critical mass. On my to-do list for this six weeks of leave: read them into submission, by processes of stern self-discipline and rejection of distracting fluff. The problem is that in my current chronically fatigued state I'm really drifting inexorably into the fluffy, on the grounds that it's all my tired brain is really fit for. Any inroads into the Bookshelf of Unread Reproach are thus hard-won, spasmodic and somewhat few and far between. In addition, while most of the BoUR is composed of fairly worthwhile literature, some of it is downright intimidating (I still, for example, haven't dared crack open Anathem on account of the fear), so if I do finish something, it's because it bloody well gripped me enough to make me do the work.

This is thus already a point in favour of the two novels I've just finished, which are in the Iskryne series, a collaboration between Elizabeth Bear (whose lj, as [ profile] matociquala, I very greatly enjoy) and Sarah Monette. I don't know Monette's writing at all; I know Bear's novels from the cyberpunky Jenny Casey series, Hammered et al, which are fun, and from her rather entertaining take on urban fantasy and mage/fay wars in Blood and Iron. (On my to-acquire list: the slashy Shakespeare/Marlowe ones). She's a deceptively solid writer - the prose feels plain and sturdy, until you look at it more closely and realise how carefully crafted it is and how hard every word is working. She's also deceptive on the level of plot, as these apparently straightforward character-driven adventure narratives tend to be packing serious political teeth.

The books I've just finished are A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but they've stayed with me in a not entirely comfortable sense: in the final analysis, I'm still not sure if they completely worked. The Iskryne world is a sort of alternate-fantasy Viking-based civilisation, in which the early-medieval Nordic homesteads are regularly threatened by trolls and wyverns. The task of fighting off these supernatural depredations is taken by the wolfcarls, warriors telepathically bonded to wolves, who form their own sub-society revolving around the pack. The harshness of the setting - ice and snow and advancing glaciers, and marginal existence scratched out in the face of it - contributes to the overall feel of the books, which is gritty, bloody and occasionally brutal.

Telepathic bonds with animals are so much of a fantasy cliché, you're probably groaning as you read this. Fortunately the authors of this series are absolutely and intrinsically aware of the cliché, and are deliberately setting out to turn it on its head. What above all I adored about these books is the absolute poke in the eye they are to the fluffy teen romanticism of things like McCaffrey's Pern series. The books set out to logically work through the implications of two basic premises, viz:
  1. Telepathic bonding with animals renders the human bondmate open to the unconstrained sexual impulses of the animal in heat, with whatever that realistically implies in terms of loss of agency; and,
  2. Bonding with wolves is about being better equipped to fight maurauding trolls. While a wolfcarl may bond with a male or female wolf, in a civilisation based on Norse mythology and Viking civilisation, the people doing the fighting are going to be exclusively male.
You can see where this is going. Inescapably, this premise followed with any degree of consistency is going to lead to really an awful lot of gay sex. Which it proceeds to do, not always comfortably, but always with complete conviction.

I was impressed with the world-building here. The cultural consequences of a separate, wolf-pack-based, homosexual society for a subset of the culture's warriors seem to me to be well and convincingly delineated. The writers are not shy when it comes to depicting both the consolation of such a setting for its participants, the strength and support of its relationships, and the less comfortable tensions - not just in interaction with a heterosexual meta-culture, but the implications for a heterosexual man who is nonetheless drawn to the wolf-bond enough to accept the sexual imperatives that come with it. The whole set-up has a beautiful logic, and its working out is consistent and satisfying even when it touches on brutality and limitation of choice.

But I'm still not sure it completely works, and I rather suspect that some of the point of my disquiet is in the genesis of this whole thing in two female writers writing about male experiences of homoerotic encounter. When I flippantly refer to "slashy" takes on Shakespeare and Marlowe, above, I am quite deliberately invoking the whole subculture and creed of slash fan fiction, in terms of its production of male homoerotic encounters by, largely, female writers and for the benefit, largely, of female readers. I'm doing it deliberately because at times this is what Companion and Reckoning feel like. There is an awful lot of homosexual sex, inevitably given the set-up, but more importantly, there's a huge amount of focus on male feelings - love, angst, conflict. At base, quite apart from the smut elements, this is what slash is about, the exploration of male emotion expressed outside normal cultural contexts and expectations, and this series does that in spades. The problem - and this may simply be the result of my over-exposure to slash, and thus somewhat dubious - is that it somehow feels as if its address is the same as that of slash, towards a female readership.

So, however much I enjoyed and respected Iskryne's world and achievements - and I did - there's still an ambivalence in my response. Part of me is responding with an awareness that this is serious world-building and cultural exploration, and is doing mental pompom routines on the sidelines in recognition of the simple elegance of the setting's inversions. Hell, if you want a truly poignant window onto the probable experience of gay men forced to hide inside heterosexual marriage, try looking at it through the eyes of a heterosexual man forced into homoerotic relationships solely because of his love for his wolf.

But there's another aspect to my response which is quite simply to feel as though some of the things the series is doing are about objectification, pure and simple - men put through their sexual and emotional paces by and for the benefit of women. And pure titillation aside, some of those paces are nasty - if you let the animal lust thing run its course with men standing in for the wolf bitch in season surrounded by males, what you have is a gang-bang. However rational the steps which have led to that outcome, and however much the focus is on cultural necessities and the emotional consequences of the choices they force, the upshot is deeply unpleasant, and the slashy conditioning makes it feel slightly as though the characters are being put through trauma because it gives rise to interesting angst.

Which is, of course, deeply illogical: to return full circle, what I really like about the series is its ability to insist that animal life is not clean or pleasant or romantic, that Pern's dragonriders largely got away with soft-focus hawt dragon sex rather than having to face the reality of sexual coercion via involuntary participation in an animal's responses. The angst is entirely necessary and justified. Likewise, if slash interests me, it's mostly because of the extent to which it seems to function as a genuinely female pornography, written by and for women and about men. If I don't have a problem with Harry/Draco, why should I have a problem with conflicted homosexual wolf-carls? Because it's "serious literature" rather than "fluffy parodic self-indulgence"? Way to be consistent, there.

Nonetheless, there is disquiet, and I'm not entirely sure it's the disquiet the authors intended to create with their deliberately provocative premise. It's not enough to prevent my enjoyment of the writing, and it won't stop me from acquiring the third in the Iskryne series when it turns up - this is a compelling world and I really like these characters. (Quite apart from all of the angst and trauma and bloody fighting, these books still manage to be occasionally funny). But I have, let us say, small political reservations. I shall watch the direction taken by the third book, and my own responses to it, with baffled fascination.

belonging to be

Wednesday, 24 August 2011 05:56 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
So, a strange thing. Several people commented on my post about Zimbabwe and identity to say that they felt national identity didn't really apply to them: either because it's an irrelevant concept, or because South Africa itself has changed so much in the last ten years that it'll never be the home they left. I can obviously understand that, and the extent to which the increasing globalisation of our particular strata of the socio-economic wossname has made nationality in some ways irrelevant. William Gibson would be proud. But it's weird: in a sense, the gradual erosion of the old South Africa into irrelevance for those people has had the opposite effect to that which the sudden, catastrophic erosion of Zimbabwe has had on me.

There's the old saw that "home is where, if you have to go back, they have to take you in". If a new Brit or US or Aussie regime suddenly expelled all you SA expats, you could come back here. It wouldn't be the place you left, but it would hold out at least a vague hope of employment, enough continuity for a pension, an education for your kids. At least as it currently stands you could build a life here, and have a reasonable expectation that it would endure. ([ profile] xavierxalfonso hit it when he talked about somewhere to grow old). It may be hopeless idealism or ostrichism on my part to see it in those terms, of course, but I live here: to me, it feels viable.

You can't say that about Zim. Its changes have been sudden and shocking and arbitrary and cruel enough that it no longer offers any sense of continuity, and to be effective, "home" and "nation" have to have that - they can change, and everywhere does, but they need to endure. Somewhere in my head, on some odd level, "nation" is not actually about a community of shared life experience, but equates to "shelter", to "belonging" in a sense which is ultimately protective and continuing. Zimbabwe no longer offers that. South Africa might, but it doesn't belong to me.

Nonetheless, the effect of the dissolution of my "nation" has made me value nationality rather than reject it; I can't have it, but it's still important and desirable. Probably because I can't have it, and I know how aching a loss its absence - on a completely different level from "I left it and it's changed" - has created. On a weird sort of level, I have no right to take for granted the shelter offered by any country, including my own. And now that I think it through, obviously for me "nationality" has a resonance of legitimate expectation, of "take for granted". It's about security above anything else.

Fortunately security can come in all sorts of flavours, and if I can't identify with nation, I certainly identify with people. You lot, for example :> - both in Cape Town and in cyberspace. I'm not sure I agree that nation is no longer relevant, but I certainly agree that community has come to mean a far more diffuse and abstract thing than it ever did in the age of the village. And that, too, has its poignancies and pains, because on some level of community it's really just about someone to give you a hug when you're down. I've just delivered my mother to the airport, and I won't see her again until April next year. I've spent the last couple of hours in tears, because already - and probably particularly because I'm exhausted and post-serious-illness and not quite myself - I miss her like an ache. I'm too bloody old to miss my mum, but dammit, I do. And part of that weepiness is because I watch her struggle off into the distances of the airport with her huge suitcase, and I know that she goes gallantly back to a home, and a life, which is characterised by the same visceral loss and undefined rootlessness as mine. Except worse, because she's older, and Zim took far more away from her than it ever did from me. And it's not fair. Dammit. It's not. Nations should endure.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Today I unearthed unexpectedly, from the clutter in my drawer, my Zimbabwean post office book. At the time I last used it, which was in 1996, its charmingly analogue columns attested to my ownership of Z$529.23.

This would have been the residue of all the saving I did from vac jobs when I was at school or in my first few years at university, less whatever I drew out for self-indulgence (usually books or fabric). If it's still there, and hasn't been closed down or whatever, it might have picked up a bit of interest in the intervening fifteen years. But let's take it from the actual depicted amount. It's currently worth a fraction over 10 South African rand, or approximatly 0.89 British pounds.

My mother has an older sister who is still in Zim - she's mentally disabled and lives in a retirement home. My grandparents left a trust fund for her when they died, which was designed to provide for her for the rest of her life. After Zim's economic collapse, my mother drew the entirety of the trust fund out of the bank, and used it to buy a milkshake and a toasted cheese sandwich at a local fast food joint.

I spent the first 20 years of my life in Zimbabwe. I don't know if it's possible to get across to someone who hasn't had their national identity whisked out from under them like a rug, exactly how odd it feels: your whole childhood, the validity of a whole nation's operation, taken away from you. The first twenty years of my life is unreal to the point where it may as well have been a fantasy, one which has been replaced with a reality which is horribly Kafkaesque. My stupid post office book is a ridiculous microcosm of the feeling my parents must have had, watching their entire working lives, plans, investments, gurgle down the drain in a matter of months. There are still people in Zim, and a government of sorts, and if you work in US$ apparently you can make a living there, but there is no coherent sense of stability or continuity such as would make a sense of identity feel legitimate.

They say you can't go home again, and in this particular case they're horribly right. I have enormous emotional attachment to Zimbabwe's landscapes, which at times I still miss with an almost physical ache, but the place is no longer the locus of any sense of a working country. I can't think of myself as a Zimbabwean any more, because Zimbabwe doesn't viably exist. But I still can't think of myself as a South African. At best, I'm a Capetonian. At worst, I know I'm not anything. There's not anything to be from. It does some very odd things to one's psyche.


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