turf wars

Tuesday, 12 February 2019 07:18 am
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Warning: minor ideological rantage ensuing. If for no other reason than the first week of term, disorganised students are demanding my attention in all directions, Eskom is running random load shedding power cuts again, and I need distraction.

This is a very interesting article on the rise of TERF activism in the UK - TERFs being trans-exclusionist radical feminists. I'm familiar with what I find to be their deeply unpleasant ideologies from hanging out on Tumblr, where salvos in a TERF campaign occasionally come over my dash, in the ongoing TERF attempt to persuade (mostly young) feminists that "queer" is a slur and should not be used. (The above usually accompanied by deft rebuttals from the actual blogs I follow, who are more or less uniformly Sensible People). TERFs don't think that trans women are women, they insist on identifying them by their biologically male bodies, and have a series of frankly paranoid outrages about "male" bodies in female bathrooms and prisons, and the "erasure" of women by the inclusion of trans women in feminist debates. TERFs are, in fact, the Mrs Grundies of feminist thinking, and to my mind they personify a narrow-minded outrage that makes them horribly akin to the closed-minded frothings of the religious right.

I am a little blindsided by how angry and nauseous the whole TERF ideology makes me, it seems to prod me with pointy sticks deep in my personal organ of justice. I think TERFs are motivated by a horrible and toxic mix of rage and fear, and while rage and fear in themselves are probably a valid response to the damages enacted by patriarchal culture, what I can't forgive is the way in which TERFs choose to respond to their anger at and fear of male bodies and cultural identity by turning on the most marginal and already vulnerable people they can find who they see as being part of that male identity. They are, in fact, punching down, with considerable malice.

And their rage and fear comes with a side order of power-tripping and desire for artificially simplified discourse; they are punching down in the service of an attempt to render simple and clear-cut debates about identity and culture which are anything but. That's what the whole dog-whistling with "queer" is about: queer identity is necessarily complex, it demands recognition and celebration of identities and identifications which don't fit easily into the male/female/gay/lesbian boxes.

It's ugly and predatory, to identify an already vulnerable target and go after it with single-minded determination, but it's also blindly hypocritical. Because if women/feminists are damaged and victimised by patriarchy, how much more damaged and victimised are those women who are born into biologically male bodies, and into cultural assumptions about male identity, which make them, whether they like it or not, a part of it? If TERFs are rejecting maleness with such frothing hatred, how much stronger and more difficult is the response of a trans woman whose rejection of that "maleness" entails so much more active and instrumental a resistance of cultural labelling? Trans women deny the male body a thousand times more fiercely than any TERF with a bathroom fixation, and they go through seven colours of hell to enact that denial. Quite apart from the costs of physical transition, our culture is getting better at gender identity only very slowly, and it still encodes gender stereotypically in ways which make it difficult and painful to resist.

I like the linked article's comments about British feminism and its comparative privilege, lack of intersectionality, and links with colonialsim; it surmises that Irish and American feminists have in many ways grown beyond this absolutism because they have been forced to accommodate experiences of subject positions based on race or colonial experiences as well as gender. TERF ideology is possibly so maddening to me because it is so obliviously privileged, but that's an insight into its workings, not an excuse; above all, I find it inherently, unforgivably cruel.
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This is an absolutely fascinating article which talks about the current decline in sexual activity among young people globally. It's a thoughtful and reflective analysis, rife with stats which are very telling: increase in the average age at which young people first have sex, decline in teen pregnancies, decline in dating and marriage rates. The anecdotal reports of attitudes are also interesting - a sort of general malaise, with respondents, rather than being wildly angst-ridden about not getting laid, merely delivering a resounding "meh". The general feelings seems to be that sex, and sexual relationships, are hard work, and possibly not really worth it, and who has time anyway?

This fascinates me, if for no other reason than for over a decade now I've been teaching a segment on virtual sexuality within a third-year course on the history of the erotic, and despite consistently positive student comments about the course, have watched sign-ups drop to under half of the levels they were at when the course was first offered. I don't know if South African youth follow the same trends they do in the West and Japan, but I suspect they may, at least among the educated middle classes I see in the university context. I think it's a complex set of pressures which is giving rise to the decline, and I would imagine that general anxiety levels under our current terrible geo-political ramifications are probably co-equal causes with the rise of more abstract forms of online sex expression, porn and fanfic among them.

And the prevalence of virtual sex-substitutes is not, I think, a harbinger of doom: if nothing else, it suggests that virtual connection or virtual eroticisim can be sufficiently "real" and satisfying to the participant that they engender a reduced need to seek them out in the flesh. (I can testify to this myself. I have been single for over a decade now, and it's a comfortable state in which friends, internet interactions and fanfic embed me sufficiently in society and culture and a notional erotic that I'm not lonely, I feel connected and I really don't want or need to change anything).

More than that, though, I see this decline as having the potential to be weirdly positive, because the "meh" of relationship reactions outlined in the article must, I think, quite heavily implicate shifting gender norms and the rise of a more enlightened feminism among women. It's a sign of cultural growth, actually, for large swathes of heterosexual women to have reached the conclusion that no relationship is actually a hell of a lot better than a bad relationship. And a bad relationship is very likely to be one with one of the large swathe of male partners who have not contrived to rise above the misogynistic conditioning of their culture in order to offer something like equality of emotional labour. (The article's description of horrendous male expectations of sex learned from porn was chilling). The article mentions at one point that dating and sexual activity levels among lesbians don't, in fact, seem to have dropped in any equal sense, which seems significant.

I mean, I can see the whole post-Freudian landscape having quite healthily undermined bad relationships across the board simply because modern psychology encourages us to seek individual happiness without requiring us, as previous generations were required, to subsume our own needs to the cultural expectation of the relationship. But the fact remains that that kind of emotional self-sacrifice has always, always been more heavily demanded of women. It's almost inevitable, that relationships will decline in the face of women's realisation that by culturally accepted definitions relationships are so often bad and unfair, and particularly unfair to women. We have the tools to realise this now, and we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it no more. Participation is, at least, something more within our control than actual male behaviour; female cultural capital has risen enough for awareness, and for women to make the decision to abdicate involvement, even if it is not yet high enough to actually change the game.

There is, of course, another level entirely on which a decline in sexual activity in young people feels potentially apocalyptic; if not Bowie's drive-in Saturday future from my subject line, it feels as though we might, in fact, be drifting into Tepper's version in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Leaving aside genetic manipulation by benevolent-if-marginal Elder Races, a disinclination to procreate makes sense when current evidence suggests that the biosphere may not survive to support our children; our overpopulated and rapaciously destructive culture may be self-sabotaging in sheer self-defence.
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Rats, slipped a bit on the posting. I have been particularly tired over the last few weeks, I keep having these weird moments when I climb out of the car after shopping and am suddenly overcome by an all-over bodily lassitude such that I can't imagine where I'll actually find the energy to pick up the grocery bags and walk up the steps. Or I look up from reading Martha Wells on the sofa and realise my eyes aren't focusing properly and my entire person is winding down into that just-pre-sleep drowsy heaviness, and I should probably go to bed, except that it's 8pm, and going to bed that early is ridiculous.

And when I do go to bed, regardless of time or whether I set an alarm (I haven't for nearly six months now), I fall asleep immediately, and sleep deeply for exactly seven and a half hours, and then wake up, entirely unprompted. Often, given how tired I am lately and how early I go to bed, at 4.30 in the bloody morning. It is clearly not enough sleep. I wake up tired. I have always been a 9-hour sleep person, even 10 if I can get it, but my damned declining middle-agedish bod is regressing to teenage angst status and refusing to do what's good for it. It would probably help if I got some exercise, but I'm too tired. Yay circularity.

On the upside: Martha Wells. The Murderbot Diaries. Intelligent, funny, poignant sf and incidentally a beautifully-judged disquisition on the nature of identity, humanity and consciousness. And corporate greed. Highly recommended. (The link is to the Kindle page because that's what was on my desktop, because currently the Kindle is the only thing that stands between me and the pressing need to construct more walls in my house onto which to attach bookshelves).

Work is simultaneously winding down for the end of the semester/exams and winding up into the year-end exam committee process and preparations for the orientation/registration chaos of the start of next year. This may be why I am feeling tired, conflicted, and hideous kinship with those long strings of goopy smoked mozzarella you get when you lift a slice out of my characteristically over-cheesed deep-dish lasagne. I am also entertaining political despair, because, recent House gains notwithstanding, America, and also because several lovely Zim students in a row this week engaged me in impassioned discussion of the current Zimbabwean situation, which is breaking out in rapacious politicians who are, yet again, robbing their citizenry blind via financial fuckwittery, and have the whole thing teetering on the brink of yet another complete economic collapse. You wouldn't think there was enough actual structure left for it to collapse further. As I said to the young man yesterday, you think that at least Zim can't get any worse, and then it does. I don't see how our significant cohort of Zim students are going to pay their fees next year, there's no forex, which is awful for them, but is also going to deliver another blow to my Cherished Institution's slightly stretched finances.

In mitigation, I recommend reading everything David Roth writes on Deadspin in the way of ruthlessly dismembering political fuckwittery, specifically the Trumpian variety. I've just read Toward a working theory of what the fuck Donald Trump is even talking about and This is all Donald Trump has left, both of which are savage, biting, insightful dissections which leave Trump in appropriately raw and quivering lumps. Satisfying. But not, alas, assisting with the exhaustion.
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This is my favourite billboard heading of the year. I'm still weirded by how hard this is hitting me. Apparently I have been waiting for this on a subliminal level since I left the country.
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oh gods, there's a coup in Zimbabwe. The military, miffed at the recent Mugabe purge of ex-military politicians who might prevent that poisonous psychopath Grace from taking power, has intervened in force and is currently holding the national broadcaster and releasing far-from-reassuring statements that Mugabe and his family are all well, we promise, they're fine! There are armoured vehicles all over Harare and reports of explosions, and Mugabe himself hasn't made any sort of statement, and I am astonishing myself with the viciousness of my hope that it's because somebody put a bullet between his eyes in the first five minutes of the coup.

I haven't lived in Zim for decades, and I don't even have much family left there any more, and you'd think it would all be a bit distant and abstract by now. But when my colleague came into my office to tell me this morning and I looked at the first few reports, it became apparent that on some subliminal level I am still Zimbabwean, and that some portion of my psyche is still bruised and traumatised by everything that despotic hell-toad did to my country, because I burst into tears. I don't usually do that in front of people, I reserve it for home or the car. It was odd. But, oh gods and little fishes, I hope he's out. I hope he's out on a stretcher under a sheet. I hope Grace is out with him. It's far beyond time.

I suppose the uncontrolled crying might also be because I am already somewhat on edge because of the protest threats on campus, and had a truly appalling night - my damned leg muscles kept cramping, waking me up in agony three times. (It doesn't help that the cats sleep heavily on my feet and contort them into weird cramp-inducing positions, although I suppose I do have my revenge in that the cramps rocket me into the bolt-upright position with a convulsive plunge which usually ejects two protesting felines summarily in something of a graceful arc). Exams started today and the Great Exam Tent Experiment seems to have opened fairly smoothly, with complete lock-down of the Exam Tent in the midst of an iron ring of police, security, campus protection, access control, dogs and an ambulance, and at time of writing a complete absence of protesters. I think that they are Biding Their Time, like a rake in the grass.

My subject line is, of course, Buffy. More accurately, the drunken pretentious Pol student in "Beer Bad". In tangentially related news, my flame lily is flowering again, at least the half of it that wasn't summarily eaten to the ground by snails as soon as it sprouted. I shall attempt to see this as a Good Omen for coups and protests and other such exuberances.
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Last night I dreamed what was either an epic fantasy novel or an epic fantasy video game which was effectively a mash-up between current American politics, current student politics at My Cherished Institution, some sort of unspecified contemporary urban fantasy with massively powerful secret female mage figures, and bits of Buffy. The whole overblown thing took place for no adequately defined reason in the endless carpeted corridors of an enormous, luxurious mansion, and was largely retroactive, in that it was shot through with the brooding, hopeless realisation that in the teeth of genre convention we, i.e. the good guys, had actually lost.

The main thing I remember is the huge meeting/negotiation sort of thing between the victorious Bad Guys, represented by Trump and George W Bush sitting smirking together at a corner of the boardroom table, and everyone else, mostly student political activists who were trying to call out the Bad Guys on their ideologically dubious fighting practices. The room was permeated with a sort of helpless horror as we realised how sneakily the Bad Guys had manipulated things to either disempower or destroy or suborn the powerful mage women (Willow Went Bad and betrayed us. Figures). In the background of the dream, various deposed female mage figures were trying desperately to regain the power they'd lost.

I woke up at the point that the werewolf mage lady was attempting a re-activation of her werewolf nature by strangling puppies. A whole row of them. Fuzzy black lab types. It was horrible. I really don't know what the whole thing says about my current state of geo-political despair, except that if Strangling Puppies isn't at least the penultimate level of the Despair Defcon, it really ought to be.

Upside: geo-political despair at least distracts one handily from personal despair, from which you can infer that neither work nor the job search are bringing me much in the way of joys. On the further upside, I haven't actually strangled any students or colleagues, either.

(My subject line is, of course, vamp-Willow).
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Last night I dreamed I looked out the glass door into the back courtyard, and there was a man (twentysomething, coloured, nearly shaved head) lying motionless on the astroturf in approximately the recovery position. And I was wondering if he was dead, or injured, but he apparently felt me watching and moved, so he was just sleeping. In the dream I was vaguely assuming he'd had a drunken rather than a criminal night, but was nonetheless a bit alarmed about finding him in my garden, and asked him to leave on the grounds of being somewhat scary, and he laughed at me a bit and obligingly did so. Possibly by evaporating, I didn't see him climbing any walls. It was all very odd, but as anxiety-related people-are-getting-into-the-house dreams go, relatively unthreatening. I think all the horrible insults to black bodies coming out of the current American fuckwittery are getting to me, there's a sort of subliminal protectiveness that kicks in.

I take back everything I said about Trump being lost and overwhelmed, incidentally. Trump is having the time of his life implementing fascist autocracy and wholesalely castrating any governmental bodies that could potentially restrain him. Even if his inner circle of batshit insane fascist jerks is leading him around by the piglike snout, the current fuckwittery has his big greasy pawprints all over it. Pundits are reading this as a trial run at an actual coup. We are all so fucked.

On the "fiddling while Rome burns" principle, possibly, jo&stv had a dance party on Saturday. This is a thing they do every couple of months, known as the Minimum Viable Party; they choose a day, send out invites, and if a minimum threshold of people is reached, they clear out the living room and hold it. Dancing starts at 8pm and finishes at 10pm sharp, because we're all old. (Even with the strict 2-hour limit I'm unfit enough that I'm usually achy for days afterwards). There's a theme to the playlist, which stv djs with great deliberation and not a little fiendishness. Saturday's was 80s cheese, unabashedly. He borrowed a chunk of my music collection to assemble it. I have a lot of cheesy compilations.

There's something about 80s pop music that's essentially, I think, innocent, possibly because people of my vintage were young when it hardwired our brains. It's also an iconic enough musical identity that it has familiarity value even to younger people, the ones who weren't in their teens or twenties when the cheese was prevalent, and familiarity with the music is a basic tenet of good dance parties. It was the largest MVP turnout we've ever seen, probably 30 people or so, and it had a lovely, joyous, uninhibited vibe which said we were all regressing like mad and completely unashamed about it. I spent a lot of it bouncing around the dance floor in a fit of giggles, because, honestly, Tiffany, "I think we're alone now". Or "Walk like an Egyptian". And my late 80s experience swung heavily Goth, but stv threw sops to the Gothy remnant of us with "Tainted Love" and "Love will tear us apart", and besides, I was also into Eurythmics and Depeche Mode. And it closed with "Wake me up before you go-go", because it had to, and alas George Michael. It was a lovely evening, I had a blast. In the current state of geo-political ramification one has to take one's pleasures where one can.
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I love that Tumblr took a sort of unspoken pact to basically ignore the Trump inauguration; I saw very little in the way of commentary or detail. The day after, everyone blossomed into gifsets and reblogs about the women's march instead, which was lovely. Also, comparisons of crowd turnout, and CakeGate, and a neo-Nazi being repeatedly punched with increasingly baroque soundtrack. (Punching Nazis is a meme I can get seriously behind. My favourite bit: "It wasn't a punch, it was an alt-highfive". Take that, disgusting alt-right.)

And the Nazi-punching has been fascinating, because it seems to go against the very politics which generates it - if you're against Nazis then really violence shouldn't be the answer, because it closes down dialogue. But, you know, if someone is ranting about Nazi beliefs and the How rather than the Whether of racial genocide, then really you're way past the point where dialogue is possible, and perhaps a punch is the only appropriate response.

It strikes me that the world in general has this sort of condescending assumption that liberals are Nice. That because we espouse notions of equality and empathy and dialogue, and are against privilege and discrimination and oppression, that we can be condescendingly ignored as ineffective. And it's true, all of these things put us at a disadvantage when up against the sort of grasping, narcissistic bigotry which can create Nazis or capitalism or Trump; we have socialised ourselves into accommodation because empathy and compromise are core liberal values, and it's a serious disadvantage in political conflict.

But anyone who thinks that liberal politics are Nice has clearly never seen a Tumblr callout feeding frenzy, which can identify, surround and isolate an unfortunate transgressor and skeletonise them in seconds without turning a self-righteous hair. That shit gets nasty, and is about as narcissistic as anything Trump ever pulled. But it demonstrates that liberal values are not incompatible with concerted, violent, self-reinforcing rage; and if ever there was time for righteous anger of biblical proportions, it's now.

Liberal empathy being what it is, I've spend some time over the last couple of days wondering what it actually feels like right now to be Trump. To have lied, bombasted and manipulated your way into the ultimate accolade of power for American identity; to be sitting at the pinnacle of political success, and to know with a cold, sinking, inescapable certainty that it's something you never actually wanted, didn't expect to win, and for which you are completely, desperately, catastrophically unqualified and unprepared. And that everyone hates you and finds you ridiculous. Your ascension has been immediately protested by the largest march in history. Your administration is going to be a long succession of destructive disasters, but it's also going to be a continuous, ongoing, inescapable humiliation. You have the lowest approval rating of all time, the most under-attended inauguration; the media, social media, public both national and international, your own internal departments, will continue to gleefully point out your screw-ups in solo and chorus until you scuttle, shamefaced, from the role. Hell, even your cake is a lie.

Right now, Trump's stratospheric levels of oblivious narcissism are frankly the only thing that is preventing him from retiring to the privacy of his gold taps and quietly putting a bullet in his own head.

And, you know, in his place I'd not just be humiliated and inadequate: I would look at the concerted efforts of crowds in pink pussy hats and the tenor of their witty, punchy, unafraid signage, and I would be afraid.

My subject line is Jabba the Hutt dialogue, translating as "You weak-minded fool!"
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
'Tis the season, by which I mean exams committee season, which means that it's the couple of hideous days during which I check and annotate board schedules while swearing at my life choices. I do not need to go through the motions of the annual rant, I shall simply reference it. Insert rant here. You know how it goes. In the Infinitesimal Department of Up, there are slightly more actual rumblings in the institution at large this year about automating the whole damned thing via the student database, mainly because it would be a side effect of doing it for registration purposes, and two years of student protests have rendered the upper echelons of management strangely interested in registration processes which don't actually congregate students in large crowds for protesters to disrupt. However, that's a Giant Programming Challenge Of Doom, and will take a minimum of several years even if they start now.

In the Infinitely Larger Department of Downside, the two hideous years of protests have generally had far from salutary effects. My weekend and Monday will be entirely full of board schedule checking to a far greater extent than usual, which is the product of discovering, yesterday evening, that academics had pulled out of three of the prelim committees. They apparently did this on Wednesday, and the administrator responsible for the committee scheduling simply didn't tell me. I found out last night in passing, accidentally, during the course of a query about something else. Apparently it hadn't penetrated the administrator's head that we have responsibilities for due diligence in these checks, and we can't simply truncate the committees. Someone has to take up the slack. That would be me. After a bit of a reshuffle, I now have two board schedules, the second being almost as thick as the one I was originally allocated, and which habitually takes me 8-10 hours to check.

I'm very tired and don't have the energy to be properly furious, but by gum if it weren't the end of the year I would be raging. Because, see, I do get it. It's been a year and a half of hell. Academics are exhausted, drained, alienated, pushed later into the year than they would be because of the delayed semester, and they are protecting themselves by simply saying "no". From their side it's justified: the whole protest debacle has been hell on everyone, requiring huge amounts of compensatory admin and emotional energy. But the thing is, the admin processes don't simply stop because everyone's tired. We have a faculty full of students awaiting their year-end coding fates, and we have a responsibility to maintain our processes and standards by doing the proper check. And academics are by the weird caste system of a university the ones who are more able to complacently retire into narcissistic individualism under pressure. They are protected by tenure, and the system always privileges their individuality, which is the realm of their intellectual and research life, over the mundane grind of maintaining the administrative system. So they say "no", and the system does what it always does, which is to make the administrators compensate, because they don't have the luxury of refusal.

It's been a hellish time to be in academia. We are stressing people way beyond acceptable boundaries, and we are going to see things snapping, mostly because people are simply going to up sticks and leave. Which is going to further compromise function and standards, which is going to see more people leaving. I hope like hell it isn't the beginning of the end.

My subject line is Franz Ferdinand, by processes of (a) alphabetical car music rotation, and (b) they're catchy. Memo to self, acquire more albums, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy them.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
At this point 2016 can officially fuck right off and die. Seriously. I do not want this 2016, it is skraaatched. In my personal iconage, it has taken from us David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Sheri S. Tepper. It has given us Brexit, Donald Trump, destructive student protests and cancer in my cat. It and all its works can take a long fiery hike straight into the sun. Today it's the death of Leonard Cohen, who is not quite a personal icon but is still a Significant Good. It feels like adding insult to injury. Also, people keep posting covers of "Hallelujah", which infallibly makes me cry even in circumstances when significant portions of America haven't just lost the collective moral and political plot.

On the upside, Tumblr is circulating relevant post-election Cohen lyrics, namely from "Everybody Knows", which is a favourite of mine and also satisfyingly and appropriately despairing.
everybody knows that the dice are loaded
everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
everybody knows that the war is over
everybody knows the good guys lost
everybody knows the fight was fixed
the poor stay poor, the rich get rich
that’s how it goes
and everybody knows
In this dark time in American politics, I re-recommend you copperbadge's unabashedly fantasy wish-fulfilment political AU with the Avengers taking the White House. Leader of the Free World. Balm to the political soul.

Further in the Department of Frivolous Escapism With Which I Propose To Distract Myself, I hear really positive buzz about Mass Effect: Andromeda, whose release date has been delayed to next year, which is a Good Thing because if they released it in 2016, 2016 would infallibly fuck it up beyond redemption. Interesting details on the game's developments here; I like what they have apparently done to tweak the combat system, and I am really excited about the increased emphasis on character interactions, because as you all know I am a mad and desperate fangirl for Bioware character interactions. The statement "The squadmate with the least amount of lines in Andromeda has more lines than the squadmate with the most amount of lines in ME3" made me go "squeee!", although not quite as ear-splittingly as if they'd replaced "ME3" with "Inquisition". I shall set aside a two-week leave period around Andromeda's release date, upgrade my computer, and permit 2017 to establish its bona fides appropriately while waving two fingers in 2016's general direction. Because really.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I did not expect to wake up this morning to a Trump victory. I also did not expect to have that victory hit me like an actual punch to the gut, since which I have been in on and off in tears. Even before reading Tumblr, with its intimate window into the pain and fear of the very liberal-skewing American bloggers I read, I was wandering around the house mumbling "But how could they do that?" in betrayed disbelief. What does it say about people that vast swathes of American voters can put any kind of stamp of approval onto that man and all he stands for? A ranting, blind, profoundly stupid, narcissistic and sociopathic man-child whose message is all about bigoted, divisive, ultimately venal hatred? Brexit was a faint shadow of this. Beyond any implications of the profoundly broken state of democracy in a media-driven world, I want and need to be able to believe better of people. But I can't.

And make no mistake, this is not just a crippling blow to values I hold very dear, decency and thoughtfulness and empathy. I am feeling it personally because this is also a particularly cruel and dismissive assault on women. Trump is a joke candidate: it is basically an insult to Hillary Clinton to be considering his "qualifications" in the same breath as hers. She is a mature, hyper-intelligent, accomplished and hard-working politician whose experience and skills have been honed across the entire course of her life to the fine point required by the presidency. If she were male, I think she would have won in a landslide. Her unpopularity, the media play with her "scandals", the characterisation of her as cold, or driven, or ambitious, are all the direct and instrumental result of her gender. If she were a man, her "scandals" would be negligible and her "flaws" would be strengths. It is beyond ridiculous, given her clear competence, that she should be so unpopular. It is sheer misogyny, woven into the fabric of media portrayals and voter responses. And to elect a shameless misogynist instead of her is a slap in the face to women.

Clinton in the White House would have been the rational choice, but also the hopeful one for more than feminism. It would have rejected the vile, destructive and asinine flailings of Trump, and it would have affirmed the idea that society is growing and maturing, that we are addressing racism and sexism and bigotry and unthinking greed, that we have learned. I don't even want to contemplate what it's going to do to our world to have a climate change denier as the American president at a crux point where we have an imperative and fast-closing window for instrumental change. We're fucked in that sense alone, even without the likely regression of American sexual and racial and economic politics and their knock-on effects in the global zeitgeist, and the non-zero chance that he'll nuke someone in a fit of pique because they insulted him on Twitter. Possibly it's a good thing I've been playing all this Fallout, I may yet need the skills.

But we can't have Clinton, because too many people voted in fear and hatred and ignorance. Which brings us to Terry Pratchett, the archetypal humanist, whose sense of humanity's failings is clear-eyed and acute and ultimately more forgiving than mine. He says it all in Night Watch, really. "The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people." Trump is a debased and dangerous idiot, but the wrong kind of people elected him.

One of the drawbacks of over-active empathy is that I need to feel connected to the world. I cannot imagine feeling connected to people capable of deliberately electing Trump, and it hurts. It means I am not part of the world. More than that, if this is what a significant portion of our world does, and wants, I do not wish to be.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It's remotely possible that being a total and irredeemable geek is my Seekrit Weapon, curriculum-advice-wise. If nothing else it gives me innocent joy to assist a student with a tangled curriculum and then spend 20 minutes, as I did a month or two back, dissecting Fallout 4 and our respective experiences over multiple play-throughs. (You were quite correct, Fallout-playing-student. Survival mode, while extremely tricky at lower levels and ultimately requiring minor modding to saves to make it non-frustrating enough for sustained play, is a deeply satisfying thing, I'm so happy you persuaded me to try it. I hope you have a tiny, untraumatic curriculum problem soon so I can tell you all about it).

Today's one was a rather beautiful inner arm tattoo which made me go "oooh, is that Tengwar?!" in girlish excitement. The student got this sort of soul's-awakening look - momentary shuttered expression, you could see him gathering himself to explain the context to a tragically unhip middle-aged administrator, followed by dawning realisation as my actual comment penetrated and he identified against all likelihood a fellow geek who didn't just recognise Tolkien, but the actual script. I wish I could have taken the hat-trick by translating, but alas, my Tengwar is beyond rusty. ("The crownless again shall be king", apparently. Somewhat classic.) At least I could respond, when he said in some relief, "Oh, you're a Tolkien fan!" by pointing wordlessly to Lúthien Tinúviel dancing on my wall.

It's a tiny subset of geeky students to whom I can appeal, but it does help to feel that moment of actual connection. Some things do cross the generation gap.

I fear that geeky consolations are necessary at the moment, as the university landscape is a bit doom-laden. It's all quiet; once again, too quiet. Lectures are suspended for the term, but students are able to access the library and labs, and the buses are running, so technically they are all finishing the semester's work and preparing for exams, which start next week. But it's entirely likely that the protesters are imitating the action of the rake in the grass and will erupt into life as soon as we incautiously step on their tines by trying to actually congregate students for examination purposes. At which point it'll all go to hell in a handbasket. However, I should note for posterity that "tines" is a lovely word. So specific. Precision in language is a very particular pleasure.

Quick Hobbit update: he's still OKish. He didn't respond at all well to the scheduled reduction of his cortizone dose after a week, his condition took a sharp dive, so we had to up it again. This means that the time left on his personal feline clock is probably measured in weeks rather than months; the cancer must be far enough advanced to resist the low doses already. Increasing the dose is giving him a bit of an appetite, at least, although in true feline and hobbitish fashion he is milking this for all it's worth by turning his nose up at expensive kidney-improving kibble. He only becomes truly enthusiastic about food if I hand-feed him bits of cooked chicken from my plate, at which point he snatches them somewhat impolitely and bolts them. I don't feed my cats people-food under any circumstances, usually, but right now I will feed him the blood of the living if that's what it takes. Let's hope it doesn't get that far. (Also, he infallibly bites me when I pill him, so he's getting a reasonable daily dose of blood anyway).

(My subject line quotes "Beren and Luthien", because that level of poignant loss seems vaguely appropriate on a number of levels).

children of the corn

Saturday, 22 October 2016 03:21 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I do not at all wish to think about the campus situation, given that library and lab access was, in fact, disrupted by protests all week, and that clashes with police and security have become violent. My inbox is filled with panicked and plaintive queries, I am exhausted and despairing, and I am forced to contemplate the need to produce four weeks of teaching in virtual form by the end of this weekend. I am therefore going to distract myself with cooking, mostly because I have recently discovered American-style cornbread, and both Jo and Claire are badgering me for the recipe.

I have wanted to make American-style cornbread for years, because it sounds cool, but we don't actually produce cornmeal of the requisite grade in this country, so I've never pulled it together before. However, a couple of months back one of the Tumblr bloggers I read posted a recipe for skillet cornbread with caramelised onions, which looked so good I was moved to do five minutes of internet research, which revealed that you can substitute the cornmeal in cornbread with polenta, which is, in fact, apparently identical to coarse-ground cornmeal. As I retain my pathological inability to follow a recipe with any degree of fidelity, I am posting below my version, rather than simply linking to his, although you can have the original link as well, here. My version doesn't caramelise the onions with actual caramel, but compensates by upping the butterfat quotient of the cornbread itself to more civilised levels, i.e. decadent ones. I will have no truck with skimmed milk. It also reduces the amount of maple syrup, because I think this is better if it's not too sweet. It doesn't seem to make much difference if you use real maple syrup or maple-flavoured golden syrup, you just need that touch of sweetness and flavour.

SKILLET CORNBREAD WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS

Onion Topping:
1 tsp brown sugar
3 tbsp butter
1 medium-sized red onion, diced (or sweet white onion if you can find them)

Cornbread:
1 egg
250ml full cream Greek yoghurt (you could use low fat if you prefer, but why?)
125ml buttermilk (or normal milk if you must be health-conscious)
3 Tbsp melted butter
3 tblsp maple syrup
250ml polenta
60ml flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 a tin of whole kernel sweetcorn (this is optional, but works very well).

I make this in a weird but magical handle-less stainless steel pan thingy I inherited from Jo(ty) when she and Phleep fled the country - it has a nice heavy base, which I think is the important bit, and you can bung it in the oven owing to the lack of handle. I've also made this in a Dutch oven, i.e. my heavy cast-iron Le Creuset knockoff. You don't need anything with a lid.

  • Preheat oven to 425oF
  • Caramelise the onions: on medium to low heat, melt the 3 tblsp butter and add the chopped onions. Allow to sweat gently and soften for about 20 mins, stirring occasionally, until they start caramelising properly. Cheat and add 1 tsp brown sugar and a little water. Cook another 5 mins or so.
  • Mix dry ingredients (polenta, flour, backing powder, baking soda, salt) in a mixing bowl. Mix yoghurt, milk, melted butter and syrup with the egg in a measuring jug. Fling wet and sinfully fatty ingredients into dry ingredients and mix.
  • Mix in the sweetcorn. You can also fling in things like bits of chilli, chopped peppadews, crispy bacon bits, grated cheese or chopped spring onion, although I wouldn't put them all in at once. I like the spring onion/peppadew version, although the whole corn one is my favourite.
  • Tilt the onion pan to run the butter up the sides, for greasing purposes, and spread the onions vaguely evenly over the bottom.
  • Pour the batter over the onions and bung into the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until firm to the touch and starting to brown. Let it cool for five minutes or so before loosening the sides and inverting onto a plate. You'll end up with a flat round loaf with caramelised onion topping, like a savoury upside down cake.
  • This is damned good with chili, or soup, or in chunks all on its own, and would make a superb and wildly cross-cultural accompaniment to braai. It's also, I warn you, absurdly moreish, I can flatten a whole loaf unaided in 24 hours. If eating it over a couple of days, it works to microwave slices for 20 seconds or so on Day 2, it freshens them and it's better warm.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
My car's music system is wandering through the alphabetical mid-section of my Bowie albums at present, currently in the middle of Let's Dance, which gave me, in rapid succession this morning, "Criminal Minds" followed by "Cat People", which has the line about putting out fires with gasoline. This was somewhat apposite as campus re-opened this morning, with the expected protest action following as the night does the day. This gave me a morning shaped thusly:
  • General headless chickening about whether or not we should try to be on campus, with contingency meetings in coffee shops first. Rumours of protesters massing on lower campus, but we resolved to give it a try anyway.
  • Arriving at a quiet middle campus venue for an online reg training session to find that technological mishap is no respecter of protests, and no-one could log into any of the computers. The organisers took an hour to ascertain that, yes, no-one could log onto any of the computers, during which time no training transpired. Then the protesters arrived.
  • Protesters set off fire alarms, bounced around the building singing, shouting and beating drums. About a million policemen arrived. We were told to leave our training venue by a protester, who was fairly polite but who also took away with him, presumably for communist redistribution, the bowl of peppermints set out on the coffee table for the trainees.
  • The building locked down. Fire alarms blaring, all doors locked. One entrance only opened, up three flights of stairs from our basement venue, and at the other side of a mass of police and protesters and news cameras. The protesters flung a bucket of human excrement across the threshold of the only open door and then departed for points upper, hell-bent, presumably, on further disruption.
  • We huddled in the basement until the crowds had dispersed, and then left, gingerly. The direction of the protests meant that my boss texted me almost immediately to say not to bother coming up to the office, since the protests were clearly headed that way, Today We Will Work From Home.
  • I could have done with that decision at 8am rather than 10am, as I find the panic attack/hyperventilation at being trapped behind locked doors to be inconvenient and annoying and would prefer to have avoided it entirely. Also the poo flinging. It came nowhere near me, but I still feel unclean. Presumably that was the point.

The Powers That Be have decreed that we will finish the semester remotely, i.e. no face-to-face lectures or tutorials. Exams will take place in November. We will finish the semester by hook or by crook, mostly crook in the sense that we will examine on eight weeks of work rather than twelve. Apparently academic standards and the integrity of our qualifications are only immutable until they aren't. It's also debatable whether or not the protests will allow us to keep the necessary library and computer labs and buses running for students without home internet access.

I am sick at heart. On the upside, Hobbit is responding well to the cortizone and, while still slightly subdued, is contriving to fight being pilled, leaving me with scratches all over my hands and, after one more than usually athletic wriggle, my left nipple. He is eating like a small ginger horse and has resumed his playful finger-nipping and butt-clawing habits. Pandora is in a massive hissy fit, I think she imagined she was an Only Cat Now after five days without him, and is resenting his return. They sit on either side of me on my bed at night with Pandy's tail lashing like a particularly miffed leopard's. On the whole, I'll take it.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Campus continues closed, which does mean the personal introvert box labelled "is stressed by traffic and crowds" is not, in fact, being ticked on a daily basis. Being quietly at home is a good thing, and conducive to being able to craft gently reassuring emails to stressed students. If only everything else in the world weren't exploding. I woke up yesterday at 8.15 with the sudden, horrible realisation that I'd booked my car in for a service that morning and promptly forgotten about it in all the cat and campus crises, and had to rocket out of bed and through the tail end of rush hour traffic to squeak it in a whisker before the 9am cut-off. On the upside, I am rather enjoying the chats with the Uber drivers. Is it just me, or are two-thirds of Uber drivers actually Zimbabwean? We play odious comparisons between Trump and Mugabe and shake our heads sagely about the SA parallels to the Zimbabwe university melt-downs, it's very satisfying.

Not everything is, in fact, exploding. A quick Hobbit update, with grateful thanks to everyone for the good wishes and moral support. I have been talked down by various vets from my somewhat knee-jerk reaction against chemotherapy. The vets, and a fair amount of googling, reveal that cancer treatments in cats and dogs are very much less aggressive than they are in humans, with quality of life being carefully balanced against an actual cure. I've been offered two levels of treatment for Hobbit, either a cortisone pill one, or a more complex/powerful one. The cortisone one is palliative and would give him at least another six months before the cancer developed a resistance to it, the second one has a chance at an actual cure, but has an increased risk of side effects and renal failure. Given that it's kidney cancer, I'm worried about the renal failure risk. He has, however, been in at the vet's on a drip since the weekend, and is apparently responding well and eating OK, so it seems fair to give him a chance with the treatment. I'll bring him home this morning, with one or other of the treatments started, I still haven't decided which. Any input valued! I am still going to lose him, probably by euthanasing him as soon as he starts being uncomfortable and unhappy, but we have more time. I'll take it.

(Subject line is David Bowie, "Days", off Reality, which seems to be a theme at the moment. Other lyrics from that particular song: "going mad, don't know what to do"; "my crazy brain in tangles". Word.)

the c-word

Sunday, 9 October 2016 10:00 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Back in the days of the Osborne Rd digs with Dylan, Mich and Mykal, we had an ongoing joke about "the c-word". I actually can't remember what the C in c-word referred to, I suspect it may have been a post-break-up cynical rant about commitment-phobia from Mich, but I don't think its genesis was obscene. The point was that you could use it to refer to anything you didn't want to contemplate, regardless of whether or not it began with C. Love. The Masters thesis. The cat throwing up on the carpet. The washing up.

I've needed that word this week. Particularly since everything that has rendered this last week a c-word does, in fact, begin with C.

Campus. Is still closed, and will be tomorrow, and we are seeing the possibility of actually finishing the semester slipping inexorably from our grasp. The protesters won't budge, and our attempts to lecture last week were futile. I don't know where this is all going to go, but nowhere good. The destruction to the fabric of the university is already incalculable.

Car. Dead battery for two days running, necessitating waiting around for jump starts and things. It's on a maintenance plan, so I can't get it sorted at the battery place around the corner, I have to trek out to Paarden Eiland. Where it transpired that the battery is, in fact, dead, and out of warranty, so that was an expensive replacement noise.

Cat, and, in fact, cancer. Hobbit is currently in at the vet's, on a drip. He's been increasingly subdued and thin, and this week spent several days not moving from one spot on the living room carpet, eating little or nothing. On Wednesday the doctor found a lump in his kidney, which tests and things have revealed is almost certainly cancer of the kidney, which has spread into the liver and lymph nodes. We are waiting for one last round of test results tomorrow to narrow the kind of cancer it is, but basically the options are chemotherapy or euthanase, and I'm fucked if I'm putting him through chemo to scratch out a last few months of unpleasant life. He's been miserable enough this last week as it is. I am almost certainly going to have to put down my cat on Monday. The effect of this has been to muffle all the campus disasters, which I really should be worrying about, but am not, because I am devastated about Hobbit. I am not coping.

Fuck this week. I'd like to return it to sender with extreme prejudice. You can keep it.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
We have Schrödinger's Protests, apparently. They only exist if they're observed, or possibly if they observe you, i.e. if you happen to be in the building at the time that the protesters happen to be congregating. Up until then, we are not in a state of protest: campus is quiet, and somewhat short of students as many of them are confused, terrified or grabbing the opportunity to bunk and haven't come to campus at all. If protest happens, dozens of students singing harmonious protest songs erupt into the building and set off the fire alarm, at which point either lock your door and pretend you don't exist, or if you choose to submit to observation, are gently but firmly escorted out of the building, briefly, to stand around for a few minutes until the focus point shifts again and you can drift back indoors and resume the placid course of non-protesting life. It's a bizarrely intermittent existence, and is playing merry hell with teaching, which is exhibiting equal parts distraction, confusion and uglification. (Tracy: hugs).

The whole has not been materially assisted by my techno-jinx, which is attacking my car. Two weeks of intermittently closed campus has led to a number of days at home, going nowhere and feverishly refreshing email, the website and my fast-compounding WhatsApp network. As a result I haven't driven the Beastie much, and her battery isn't charging. I was very tense about Monday, and braced for protest horror horrors (which fortunately didn't actually materialise), and climbing into the car to have it make a series of unpleasant coughing noises in lieu of starting, really didn't help. Except when it did, as waiting for the jump-start people ended up delaying my arrival on campus by a couple of hours, thus neatly avoiding the road closures, which all packed up and went their merry way at about 10am. I have had a rinse and repeat this morning, and have just returned from an expensive little trip to the Hyundai service people, who replaced the battery and, it being six months out of warranty, charged me merrily for it. Now at least I can reliably arrive at campus on time tomorrow to be turned back by the barricades. Yay.

By way of distracting myself from the political insanity of my current context, a word on the political insanity of America. Not even Trump, although I have to record for posterity my glee at Trump being pwned by Clinton in the debate. (See also: Shimmy Song). Do you know that the US gun laws, in their NRA-funded money-grubbing madness, prohibit the use of any computer database to track gun ownership? So everything is on hard copy or microfilm, and has to be searched manually. There's an amazing GQ article which chronicles the bloody-minded determination of the gun ownership records office to be halfway functional in the teeth of one of the world's most warpedly biased constraints. It warms the more administrative cockles of my heart. The rest of it (the non-administrative cockles) are being chilled by the sheer number of unrestrained firearms in America.

(My subject line is Bowie's "She'll Drive the Big Car", which is one of his more melancholy and contemplative numbers off Reality, and something of a favourite of mine.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I was right about the "too quiet" thing, an attempt to be on campus on Wednesday inevitably ended up with protesters setting off fire alarms, and we all scurried home quickly before they could attempt to pointedly escort us out of the buildings, which has been the technique thus far. The Dean finally decreed that everyone should remain off campus for the rest of the week. We are at a deeply unpleasant pivot point where the university leadership is insisting that lectures must start on Monday come what may, which means increased security, which means confrontation and escalation and violence, and more damage and trauma all round.

The whole thing still hinges on the demand for amnesty by protesters who were interdicted or expelled or prosecuted for criminal damage. The students remain immovable about this as a condition of allowing the university to continue; the VC insists that there can be no compromise. (Apparently he's under pressure from a particularly punitive faction in Council). I have changed my mind about this, in contemplation of the inevitabilities playing out, and in wincing, braced anticipation of things going horribly downhill on Monday. At this stage, amnesty is going to be the least damaging of a range of dreadful options. The best suggestion I've heard thus far, after a surprisingly civilised and productive faculty meeting this morning, is that the university issues amnesties while requiring an address to criminal activities, and some resolution in terms of justice/reparation, as part of an independently-run TRC.

And if nothing else, it might work to repair trust to some small extent: we cannot function with a student body with a large number of perfectly legitimate grievances feeling utterly unheard by an implacable admin. It's horrible to realise how much damage has already been done - not just to our credibility and donor funding and academic project, but to the institutional psyche. Students are angry and afraid and anxious about all the confrontation on top of the already high levels of inherent angst in being a black student on a campus whose culture is opaque and elitist and alienating. Staff are devastated and betrayed by the assaults on their competence which student dissatisfactions inevitably represent, and are increasingly angry about all these demands that we "consult" with our students while management goes ahead and makes unilateral decisions regardless of the outcome of consultations.

I am not designed for this. I have a pathological need to see all sides of an argument, and far too much empathy with all of them. I am tending to keep fairly quiet in the faculty context in a desperate attempt at self-defense, while I silently build walls to stop myself from disintegrating. Because that's what it feels like. A lot of my Useful Stuff Learned In Therapy suggests that giving people what they want is one of the ways I validate my own existence. No-one can get what they want in all this. I can't help, despite the fact that my job requires I integrally help both students and the faculty. I therefore may not actually exist.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Campus has been formally closed until Sunday, while students march on campus and academics march on Parliament and students and academics disagree, generally politely, on why they should be marching and what's actually a realistic demand. It's like a slow-moving, disruptive and unusually verbose dramatisation of the generation gap, with occasional police presence. I am imitating the action of the Harry Potter, which is to stay in my room keeping very quiet and pretending I don't exist.

Recent interesting discoveries: student mass action is both a fatigue trigger and a source of more subliminal stress than I was aware of. Last night I actually had a sleep-walking dream, for the first time in years. A very tall man in flowing, fragmented, cream-coloured robes, like a cross between a Grecian statue and Rey from Star Wars, came through the wall above my bed, and I woke up with my heart pounding, trying to hold him back by main force. I don't think he was actively trying to hurt me, but he was very definitely present and invasive and insisting on being heard. I resent that in my bedroom at three in the morning. I'm picky about who occupies that space. Sometimes the cats don't even qualify.

I am, however, particularly delighted to note the pleasantly insane existence of what3words, which purports to identify a 3m square anywhere on the planet in three easy to remember words, and stuff all these postcodes or GPS, anyway. As far as I can work out, at least a portion of my house sits firmly in my subject line. I am somewhat delighted.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Lectures are suspended today, and the faculty sent all the staff home on the grounds that they'd rather not have us tangle with protests, which I welcome, even if it does mean I suffer momentary setbacks like a sudden Hobbit to the touchscreen at a psychological moment, causing me to, e.g., randomly leave a Whatsapp group I'd just carefully created. (In other news: Whatsapp! I resisted it with all four feet for years on end, but it's seriously great for keeping contact with people during, I dunno, massive campus meltdowns or whatever. I am industriously proliferating groups.)

If nothing else, being formally at home to work means I don't have to attempt the classic student protest manoeuvre, namely swearing my way through rush hour traffic for twenty minutes only to fetch up against a barricade and have to turn around and swear my way all the way back home. Not good for the fatigue. In addition to rush hour traffic as a fatigue trigger, recent discoveries of other, more exciting triggers include continuous fire alarms, crowds singing in the foyer, and faculty board meetings during which the assembled academics of the faculty bombard the VC with complaints, questions and thinly-veiled ideological harangues, mostly conflicting, for two hours. I staggered home yesterday in a state perilously close to collapse.

Of course, the inscrutable workings of Sod's Law dictate that this week is my most congested teaching-wise for the semester, with a batch of lectures as well as my usual seminar. I am scrambling to find ways to catch up, with the uneasy awareness that I have it desperately easy given how little I teach in comparison to most academics.

Among the considerable advantages of working at home: decorative kitties.



I have a dark suspicion that Pandora may actually be giving me the finger as a side effect of that adorable flumphed paw-to-nose pose. Also, winter didn't quite generate the puddle of cat I'd hoped for, but the two of them are getting on surprisingly well. Mostly. Half a second after this photo Dorable rolled over and almost touched him, and a startled Hobbit leaped about two foot backwards and into the water bowl.

(Subject line gloss: Bowie, natch. "Beauty and the Beast". Although possibly something from "Diamond Dogs" might have been more appropriate to the faint air of apocalypse.)

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