Friday, July 18, 2014

Stressful Conversations

I took a long nap yesterday afternoon, after more discussion about race on facebook. I really have to stop getting into these conversations. They are stressful and exhausting, and I have nothing to contribute.

Green Line

I took the new Green Line light rail train to Minneapolis for a Weight Watchers meeting today.

I have lost the weight I gained last week. Now I have to continue losing. Pleasant ride on the Green Line both ways. I noticed a store I had never noticed before. It has the perfect Minnesota name: "Nice Clothing."

There are a bunch of grain elevators near the U. They used to belong to Archer Daniels Midland. (I can make out the faded ADM.) Now, there are large, black, block letters saying, "UNITED CRUSHERS." I have no idea what the company does. But I am not sure I ever want to do business with them.

Most of the ride is along University Avenue, which is both urban and boring. But there are a few spots of greenery, either planted or wild. I especially like the wild areas -- uncut grass and wild flowers blooming white, yellow and purple.

A facebook colleague checked and discovered that "UNITED CRUSHERS" is graffiti -- very impressive graffiti. The letters are huge and way high up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Safe Spaces

I managed to extract myself with something approaching grace from a discussion of racism on facebook. One of the other people said I was being 'directive' -- pushing the discussion in a direction I wanted. It reminded me that more than 40 years ago, a woman in my feminist consciousness raising group accused me of dominating the group intellectually.

I think I understand what was going on in both cases. I stayed in the consciousness raising group till it finally broke up. But in general I should stay away from situations like this. Many women and members of minorities feel they are silenced by men or white people or other majority groups. The consciousness raising group was a safe space, where women could finally talk -- except I and one other woman like me were in the group, and we were used to talking and argument. We were silencing the other women.

I need to remind myself that these conversations, even if they are in public, are really taking place in a safe space -- an environment for people who feel their opinions have been silenced and ignored and who need a place to express feelings and work out ideas, without bull-in-the-china-shop interruptions. This is important. This was the reason for consciousness raising groups. The problem, as I wrote above, is when safe spaces are not clearly marked. Right now, Wiscon is a blurry mixture of unmarked safe spaces and areas where contentious discussion is okay. I think the con needs to set up separate tracks. The same problem happens on the Internet. There are discussion threads that are meant to be a safe space, but are in public, and someone like me can blunder in.

Wiscon (or any con) could have discussion groups, possibly closed, with clear rules of behavior: they would be collaborative, respectful listening would be required, challenging other members would not be acceptable... And so on. The open panels would allow more dispute. Con members would know where they needed to go for safe discussions...

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


Today was a trip to the bank and library, then a stop at a coffee shop I like next to the Mississippi River. I took galleys along to proof at the coffee shop. It's nice to sit in a big, soft, comfortable chair and proof.

I need to get out more. Yesterday was awful, hot and very humid. Today is cooler and drier. I decided not to take books to the library. My bag was too heavy. But I remembered I had four silk scarves at the cleaners and picked them up, stopped at the bank and then stopped at the library for a book that will be discussed at the next meeting of the Rivendell book discussion group.

I went past the Science Museum to the river. The museum has a garden in back, on the river side -- very nice, with a fountain, an artificial stream and plantings of wild flowers. The milkweed and butterfly weed were blooming, along with more flowers I didn't recognize.

The river is high. Part of the path along it is blocked off and under water. It's moving fast and carrying fallen trees.

The Chinese are right. Art should consist of rivers and mountains, flowers, birds, fish and bugs.

I noticed no bugs, which is disturbing. There should be butterflies and bees on the flowers.

That aside, a lovely day. I settled into a comfy chair at the coffee shop. Their gas fireplace is still on, burning faux logs, but the AC is strong enough to defeat any heat produced. I read all the galleys I had brought along and found only one problem. The stories are pretty good. I felt happy with them.

Then I read some poetry by David Mura, which inspired me to write haiku. This was the best of my poems:
The air smells of summer.
Grass, butterfly weed,
Plants I don’t know --

All scent the air,
Milkweed blooming, vines blooming
Red and purple blooms.
It isn't really a haiku, since the two stanzas are one thought. But what the heck.

Iceland Photo

I don't post enough images on this blog. So here is one from Iceland, my favorite country. It's from the Guide to Iceland website.

The Rhetoric of Harm

Someone on facebook posted a link to You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma. It's by Jack Haberstam, someone I don't know, but I liked a lot of the essay, and I linked to it, saying the following:
I know nothing about Jack Haberstam other than this essay. But I found the essay interesting. It addresses trends that I have found problematic. I think Haberstam is onto something: if movements are going to work, they have to be broadly based. The focus on harm to the individual is neoliberal, because the basis of neoliberalism is a focus on individuals. As Maggie Thatcher said, "There is no such thing as a society. There are only individuals and families."

What Haberstam is saying, I think, is that we talk too much about personal harm and trauma these days, rather than speaking about collective harm: global warming, for example, or world poverty or racism or war.

This is a hard topic to nail down since -- as the Second Wave of feminism said -- the personal is the political. A statement about the one can be a statement about the other. But it's also possible to use the personal to evade larger political questions. If we don't get past the individual to the collective, then we are stuck in Maggie Thatcher's world.

I have been bothered on the Internet and at Wiscon by rather too much concern with people as victims. We should never see people as victims. It turns them into objects, rather than subjects. I've been concerned by rather too much interest in feelings. We live in a difficult world, and we can't protect ourselves or one another from painful experiences. Reading the news is a painful experience. The whole damn world is triggering. We have to learn to cope, and we have to work for change. It is not a political statement to say, "You made me feel bad."

An essay in response to Halberstam can be found here: Jack Haberstam's Flying Circus: On Postmodernism and the Scapegoating of Trans Women. The author blames postmodernism for the atomization of the left.
Postmodernism enforced a ruthlessly pointillist perspective on politics. Even as we spoke of grand social structures like white supremacy, patriarchy, or capitalism, we became fixated on the individual as the prime site of resistance. The war would be fought on our bodies, with our clothes, our motility, our speech, every millimetre of social practice. All would inform the struggle. We became fixated on distinction rather than commonality, developing lightning fast reflexes to point out when someone said something that, for instance, could not be applied to all women. Distinction mattered over all else.
Postmodernism may be the villain in academia. I don't know that it is where I live in the outside world. I would guess that the villain is the collapse of the left. In spite of Occupy and the Moral Monday actions in North Carolina, both of which are impressive, I do not get the sense that the American left has much in the way of energy or direction.

Why did the left collapse? My first answer was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a capitalist state. This was the end of a dream, and the left hasn't found a new dream to replace it. Something similar has happened in Europe: Neoliberalism is eroding the gains made by unions and Social Democrats after WWII. Another dream -- that of the sane and humane Nordic societies -- is gone or going.

I am not saying that people have stopped struggling and given up. There are interesting things happening all over the world. But the two big dreams, that of Communism (the Third International) and Social Democracy (the Second International) have mostly vanished.

I'm not sure this explains the US, since Americans don't pay a lot of attention to the rest of the world. Maybe the American left was simply worn down by 30 years of conservative counter revolution.

In times of setback, the left usually turns aggression inward, breaking into ever-smaller factions. Maybe the ultimate faction is one person, complaining about he or she has endured.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Farmers Market

So I went to the Farmers Market wearing a white Oxford shirt that Patrick bought and then realized the label was wrong. It was way too big for him. I figured it would work as a boyfriend shirt for me. I was buying some parsley when the vendor said, "You are a noose?" I asked him to repeat, but I still couldn't understand him. Finally the guy next to me said, "He's saying, are you a nurse?" I was embaressed and tapped my ear and said to the vendor, "I'm sorry. I'm going deaf. " This is sort of true.

Summer squash is at the Market, also lettuce and kale and collard greens and bokchoy. New red potatoes. Scallions. Early onions. Lots of herbs. I got yellow summer squash and parsley.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Fourth

We could see the St. Paul fireworks clearly from our livingroom, plus two more distant fireworks. Very nice. We did not like the two rockets set off in the street next to our building by some idiot, which wizzed up and exploded just above us. Another idiot was continuously yelling, maybe in response to the fireworks, though it sounded as if he were saying, 'I am here. For God's sake notice me.' I like fireworks, though I don't go out of my way to see them.

The blog Naked Capitalism has a discussion of what it means to be an American posted right now. The responses were all pretty negative. This reminds me of the time I was walking around a lake in Minneapolis, and a group of high school kids with a camera stuck a mike in my face and asked me if I was proud of America. I think that was the wording. I said I liked the landscape and many of the people. I would stick by my response. And while I can feel negative about big corporations and rich people and the current state of the federal government, I still like Joe Hill and Mother Jones, who strike me as very American, though Joe was a Swede. What is more American than the IWW? I like jazz and blues and Utah Phillips. I used to like -- and collect -- the Folkways recordings of elderly people in Appalachia singing old ballads. I like Minnesota. Even the government is not bad, since it's controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party at the moment.

I also don't like the streak of deranged religiousity that goes through much of the country or the racism, which is basic to American culture, I think. That doesn't mean racism can't be pushed back and maybe someday ended. But I was trying to stick to things I like. Paul Robeson. Sojourner Truth. I could celebrate the Fourth with fireworks and Robeson singing, "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man?"

And I do like the landscape.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Cast-Iron Ego

It's the Fourth of July. I have turned off the classical music station, which is playing patriotic music, and put on a CD of Bach. There is a lot of very good American music, but endless variations on The Star Spangled Banner does not work for me.

CONvergence, the huge local SF con, is happening right now. I have a membership, but did not sign up for programming. I was at the pre-con party, which was very pleasant, and may go back. But not today.

Lyda Morehouse and I were talking about confidence a few days back. Most writers experience a lot of negative feedback: rejections, bad reviews, no reviews, getting dropped by a publisher... The list goes on and on. As a result, it really helps to believe in yourself, to have self-confidence, to have a cast-iron ego.

This is one of these statements which is important without being profound. Yes, of course, people need self-confidence.

There has to be a limit to self-esteem. If you are arrogant, you will piss people off, and you may make career mistakes. In addition, excessive self-esteem may blunt your critical sense. You can't see what about your work needs improving.

The question is, how to achieve balance: to have enough self-confidence to keep going, without becoming a maniac. I don't have an answer. I would say I don't have enough self-confidence, though somewhere in the back of my mind -- in a small, secret room -- I do think I am a wonderful writer. But the rest of my mind contains a lot of self-doubt.

This is pretty common for writers. It's a line of work that encourages mood swings, from the highs of a good writing day or a good review to the lows of rejection and writing that isn't going well.

I was helped by having a father who was an art historian. To a great extent, the important European artists of the later 19th and early 20th century -- the Impressionists and Post Impressionists, the Cubists and so on -- were badly reviewed and did not sell well. My father said once, "Given the history of the last hundred years, no critic should take himself seriously." The critics were almost entirely wrong. When I have trouble selling, I can remind myself that van Gogh sold one painting in his life.

To me, it seems obvious that commercial success is not evidence of merit. So what is evidence? One has to trust oneself.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Writing tools

A couple of my colleagues over on the Wyrdsmiths blog have posted on the tools they use when writing.

I have a thing about fancy pens, usually ballpoint pens, though I also have rollerballs and fountain pens.

And I have a thing for Levenger, a catalog company that sells paper, notebooks, pens, briefcases, computer cases... They originally billed themselves as "tools for readers." A friend of mine calls them sex toys for writers.

The last thing I got was a Circa notebook. Circa is a notebook system which allows you to pull pages out and put pages in. So you can have the fancy notebook and not worry about ruining pages.

This one has a bright red leather cover. I got extra pages for it: 300 of them. And I pulled a pen I never use out of the pen display case and tucked it in the notebook. It's a Conklin -- a nice pen, but not equal to a Waterman. I like the feel of it. It's a big pen, easy to hold. And I like the surface: a bold pink, green and black pattern. It doeesn't exactly match the notebook cover, but close enough. All I have to do now is write.

Forks in the Road

About ten years ago, I attended a writing workshop in Iceland given by the wonderful Icelandic-American poet and essayist Bill Holm, who died way too young, and David Arnason, a very fine Icelandic-Canadian fiction writer. One of the exercises David gave us was: imagine a point in your life that was a fork in the road, when you had a choice of going in two different directions. Then write a description of what your life would have been like if you had taken the other road.

I could not do the exercise. I couldn't imagine a point when my life had those kinds of choices. I talked to David afterward. He said he had a very clear point of decision in his life. His father had been a fisherman on Lake Winnipeg. He could have followed in his father's footsteps and become a fisherman. Instead, he went to college and became a professor of English Lit and a writer.

I began writing in grade school, and I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was junior high or high school.

I knew in college that I didn't want to join the professional middle class. This was the 1960s, and the middle class did not have a good rep. I thought they were servants of the ruling class, who earned enough by their servitude to be comfortable when many other people suffered. This was a black-and-white vision. Life is more complex, and many middle class people do good work. But I felt then that the middle class was morally compromised. I also felt that a professional career would interfere with my writing.

I went to graduate school for several years, but quit when I realized I was getting close to an MA. I knew if I got one, I'd take the easy way out and get work in an art museum or teaching at a college. (An MA was worth more in those days.) Since my father was an art historian, I had spent my entire life in art departments and art museums. I wanted to find out what else was in the world.

After college, I worked a long series of crap jobs -- mostly in offices, but some in warehouses. 'Crap' is unfair. I found most of the jobs interesting. But they were poorly paid and not respected.

And I wrote, first poetry and then fiction.

Gradually, over time, I learned to do accounting. I ended by being a bookkeeper or financial manager for several small organizations, mostly nonprofits. This was sort of professional, though I never made much money, and I had no credentials, no degree in accounting or CPA. I did end up with more responsibility than I liked. I have never wanted to be any kind of boss, and I ended up as a supervisor -- a strawboss -- a couple of times.

In 2009 I got laid off. I discovered it was really hard to find a job at my age in a depression. In the end, I retired and became a full-time writer.

So where is the fork in my road? I could have finished my MA, I suppose, and gone on to work in a museum. But I didn't want to.