June, 2006

My husband and I watched Hotel Rwanda last week. It is a wonderfully made, excellent, harrowing film. I recommend it without reservation. I had to steel myself for it, but I made it through ok. The director made some excellent choices about what to show and what not to show. It’s horrible all the way down, though, no doubt about that. I put myself through it because I sort of believe that Santayana quote about the past.

I sometimes think about what it would be like living in a country where genocide was occurring. After a few moments reflection, I usually conclude that I wouldn’t survive, much less help others to survive. I’d mouth off to someone and get shot, or just not be quick enough on my feet to get away, or just not find a good enough hiding place, or simply refuse to believe another human being capable of killing me. I’d be one of those uncounted bodies, littering the streets. I’m just an average sort of person, not particularly heroic or resilient. And in Rwanda, there were hundreds of thousands of people just like me, people who were hacked to death with machetes. Regular people, citizens, just going about their lives. You know, like we do.

It’s hard to reconcile, but I didn’t do anything to make the Rwandan genocide stop. I was, shamefully, barely aware of it. Our nation did nothing, nor did we demand action from it. The United Nations did not intervene, either. Hundreds of thousands killed, and we refused aid or to even listen to them die. What was I doing that was so important I couldn’t write a letter to my senator? I can’t recall. At least it’s over now, right? If only. Genocides such as the one that shattered Rwanda keep recurring. In the former Yugoslavia not so long ago, and today, in the Darfur region of Sudan. When will we stop?

We can only stop it consciously, and with effort. It’s not going to happen by itself. Think about it with me, please. There’s someone in Darfur who is just like you, except about to be killed, either by being driven off the land that provides their livelihood or by direct force. There’s someone in Darfur who is just like you, except they’ve turned their skills of herding and slaughtering cattle to herding and slaughtering people. Think about it, and hold your breath. Thank you.

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My Dear Simone –

I suppose I don’t have to write to you only on the day you died. I do sometimes think of things I’d like to tell you at other times, but I’m afraid to sit down too long with memories and thoughts of you, because I know how sad I will be when I do so.

Your sister misses you. She says so in words, and in other ways. Sometimes, she will say to me, “Look, mama, a baby!” and I’ll look around and someone will be carrying an infant. I don’t look long; I check Sophia. In her face I can see the most heart-wrenching mixture of longing and confusion. She doesn’t understand it, still. Nor do I.

Sophia’s one, and only, baby doll is still named Simone, after you. I thought she might change her name, but she has not done so. To her, all babies are you. Sometimes she declares she never wants to have a baby. I assure her she doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to. But her adamancy puzzles me. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t.

Can I say that I still miss you? Is it untoward, unseemly, should I just be “over it” by now?

Sometimes I can almost touch the person I was before you were born and before you died. It’s like a paperfold in time that brings me to another me at ten or fifteen or twenty-two; a me that has no idea what’s in store. I’m always too startled that I’m there to warn myself of what’s ahead.

You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) to discover the number of people who think it’s acceptable to tell me to have more kids. Like it’s ever acceptable to tell anybody how many or how few kids they should try to have, even if they hadn’t already failed at keeping fifty percent of their offspring alive. I’ll admit I feel like saying,”Did you forget that I’ve already tried that?” but I never do. People have their own inexplicable reasons for trying to direct other people’s lives. Besides, I think it’s actually meant for encouragement, though it just makes me despondent.

I wonder if you have any ideas about what I should do with your ashes? They’re still in that temporary box we got from the funeral home. I don’t know whether to put them in something pretty and fragile, whether to throw them away, whether to bury them in the yard. I want to plant a tree for you in the yard, a beautiful weeping willow like the ones I love so much in Cordoba. In University City, there’s a home with a tree in the front yard that has a plaque at its base that says “Anna’s Tree”. My tree, and I didn’t even know it was there. I want to have a large, lovely tree and a plaque that says “Simone’s Tree”. I don’t want to explain it, or put dates on it or anything like that. I just want it to be your tree, growing tall and strong, like you didn’t. If I did that, would you want me to put your ashes there, underneath the plaque?

A while back, Sophia asked me to see a photograph of you, because she couldn’t remember what you looked like any longer. I remember well how you looked, but – and it makes me more sad than I can explain – I don’t recall anymore how you smelled. I remember how the smell of you pleased me. I remember leaning into your warmth and inhaling it, and how it wasn’t like anything else. But the actual sense of you? It’s gone, dissipated, like everything does.

Here’s the thing that I fear, and I can tell you, because it won’t make you afraid also. I fear that because I lost you, sibling to my living daughter, that when she grows up and I and her father have died, she will not have any family in the world. It’s probably a stupid and irrational fear, but I cannot quell it or still it. I see her in the streets of some large city, alone and bereft. No family to call on, to accept her regardless, to give her a place that she can always return to, a refuge. She has no cousins on one side (and is unlikely to) and on the other side her cousins are more than 6000 miles away, remote and unavailable. I guess everyone worries that their kids will need them after they are gone. And obviously I see that I’m idealizing family relationships that often don’t work out to be supportive. Lots of siblings fall out, quit speaking to one another, try to harm each other. Plenty of people get along on a close circle of friends they make their family, instead of the folks they share their surname with. Those rationalizations don’t seem to help. I don’t know why this fear should be so deeply burrowed into me. I don’t know what to do to make it go away.

We are a broken family. We have a fissure to the core, a sinkhole that nothing or no one can ever fill. I thought, once, that time would fill the bottomless pit, but time does not work like that, apparently. Time erodes the sharpness caused by the cataclysm, but does not knit back the seam.

It is who we are without you. I don’t know who we would have been with you, just like I don’t know who you would have grown into with us. It is one of those things I wonder about sometimes, because I’m a wondering sort of person. Yes, I still miss you. It would have been something to hear your words. Next year I will try again to mark your birth instead of your death.

I love you, dear little one, my Simone,

Your Mother

I am surprised at the number of you, friends and relations, who continue to mark this day with me. Thank you. Your kindness moves me, and it is my own difficulty in holding back tears and expressing my gratitude that makes me unable to answer you, each one, as you deserve. You are all a comfort to me.

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I love a day that is longer than I am, unspooling itself with radiant light from end to end. Bright before I awaken, bright as I close my eyes to sleep. I love the solstice. Ten million hours of daylight stuffed into one day.

We got our first heat advisory today. Welcome, summer! I put away the Claritin about two weeks ago. Goodbye, spring! I took twenty-six Claritin this year, and on some days I was still pretty miserable. I may have to increase my local honey intake during the winter months.

I made Thai for dinner. I went out to the deck and snipped cilantro for a garnish because my cilantro plant is a mighty behemoth, full of tender little leaves begging to adorn and enhance my meals. Oh, it was tasty, and smelled so good. I love using the cilantro so much, I am considering hunting down a fresh salsa recipe that calls for loads of it. When the tomatoes ripen. Yes, indeed, there’s four green, little tomatoes on two of my plants out there. Soon, soon, soon. My basil plant, which looked to die, is full of vibrant green leaves. Fresh pesto made in the very near future. I gave in and gave the lemon balm a bigger pot, and it’s ginormous and beautiful. I staked the sage, and it survived the process. About time to bake some fresh herb bread, I think.

Everyone has big plans. At Sophia’s school they’re talking about embarking on a building project to renew some or all of the aging buildings on campus. At my writer’s group there’s a hot and heavy discussion about forming a writer’s colony. I would love a place to go for a couple of weeks at a time to get away and write. However, I think what I have in mind (a quiet, simple refuge) is not what others have in mind, so I’ve resolved to stay out of the discussion for now.

The staring into space part of Cualcotel is proceeding nicely. I’ve outlined a plot in 25 cards, a system that’s so alien to me I actually had to look up how to do it on the intraweb (I used a mishmash of these two methods, for the curious). I’ve no idea if it will work, but my story now has triple the number of bad guys it did last time around. It looks like I’m headed away from primarily internal conflict. That’s probably a good thing.

I’m also thinking over the slushbomb F&SF on August 18th plan. I’d love to take part in that. I’ve never submitted anything to F&SF, and don’t think I have anything written I would submit to them. That’s part of my own fears about not being genre enough for standard specfic markets, though. What is it I write, again? Still, if I can come up with and execute a crunchy enough idea by August 18th, I’m so about slushbombing. It’s like carnaval, no? Also, while I’m being a fun feminist, I’d go to an Equality Now Serenity showing if there was one here in St. Louis. Maybe there’s one in your neck of the woods?

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12 Jun 2006, by

Desperate War

Of the three suicides this weekend at Guantanamo Rear Admiral Harris, camp commander, says, “They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Odd that he should think acts of desperation and acts of war are mutually exclusive propositions, don’t you think?

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I just finished Worldwired, and it’s been a few months since I read Hammered and Scardown (back to back, in November) so this review is probably going to focus more on the third book than the first two because it’s the freshest in mind. It’s no secret that I love Elizabeth Bear, but I will make an effort to point out some of the things I thought were a little weak in this set of books which are the first long work of hers I have read.

First of all, these are good books, worth reading, with plenty of shiny and lots of heart. The downward ecological spiral is fascinating, the aliens are very cool, and the worldwire is the best computing network since Gibson’s cyperspace. If you aren’t hooked by Genevieve Casey then you lack any empathy whatsoever and should probably be administered the Voigt-Kampff test. Her character arc is nicely drawn and most satisfying.

Bear manages an ensemble cast surprisingly well and, in the third book especially, really shows her strong tension/plot skills by managing short, breath-taking scenes with far flung characters that build on one another in that gripping what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong way. She breaks away in all the right spots, too, even if it makes you go “Arggh! I’m not ready to leave this scene!” as you read it.

I liked how we get character emotional states through the filters of other character points of view, and how these evaluations are not always completely correct. It’s a clever way to tell us both about the character being observed and the character doing the observation, and is probably a whole lot harder to do well than Bear makes it look. The poetic, metered writing when wired POV characters jump into slowtime was pretty cool. I also liked a lot of particular actions characters took, sometimes expected and sometimes quite surprising but always believable. I won’t spoiler anything by going into specific details, just be prepared to enjoy it when you read the books yourself.

However (there’s always a however, isn’t there?) Bear had some quirks in her writing that were mildly irritating. She was a little too…in love, I guess…with her Feynman AI. In the second book especially, he gets more physical description time than any of the other characters, and you know what? Hasn’t got a body! Isn’t a physical entity! So, you know, not interested in those painstaking descriptions of his gestures, ripped right from the movies we’ve all seen of Feynman giving speeches. Ok, ok, I get the big irony stick here, we physicalize the entity who has no biological form, but in my opinion, it was overdone. In the third book she balances this out a little with lavish description time of other characters as well so it’s a bit less annoying.

Another small gripe: people talked too much alike for my taste, which was a less well-managed part of the ensemble cast. Only Jen always sounded like herself (though Gabe and Min-Xue were pretty distinct), and that was mostly due to the religious phrasings and the French bits. Now, I know that in real life people adopt other people’s modes of talking, and that’s one way to show you who is allied to whom. I don’t think it works as well in fiction, where the goal is (usually) to give different characters different speech patterns. For example, at least three different characters (maybe more, some repetitions might have slipped by before I was aware I was reading this particular set of words AGAIN) use the phrase “if you squint at it”. I didn’t buy it from all three, and felt like that was Bear’s phrase, slipping in. Hmmmm, tempted to search her blog on the phrase “if you squint at it”, but won’t because it doesn’t seem sporting somehow.

Despite Bear’s deftness with the rotating cast, I felt like there were too many characters, especially in the third book. I couldn’t figure out why we needed all those scientists aboard the Montreal, and why Elspeth Dunsany got relegated to being the flirt and the surrogate mommy in book three. Wtf was that about? Couldn’t she have served in Jeremy’s stead? So she’s scared of EVA, isn’t that a good reason to force her into it? Couldn’t she have gone over with Charlie to the shiptree? Or hell, couldn’t Charlie have gone over there alone? What did we need Jeremy for again? Didn’t Wainwright serve to worry about Leslie sufficiently? Which, btw, I was told a whole bunch of times how professional Wainwright was and how just because she was all hot for Leslie she wasn’t going to spring him from the birdcage, but I totally missed the part where she starts getting the hots for him. Was it there and I just didn’t pick up on it? Kindly do not elide the human interaction bits, if you would, specially if they determine character maneuvers. Also, I got a little whiplash from book two to book three; in Scardown Riel’s Brit scientist was portrayed as a good guy and then in Worldwired presto change-o, he’s the evil spy we must keep ignorant of the heroes’ do-good machinations. Huh? And also, why is he there but not there? I never got to see him in book three, just hear about how he was around. Weird.

[MILD SPOILER] — In the first book, Razorface’s wife was redshirted too quickly for me. She was just too nice, and too incidental, to survive. It’s not that I mind seeing stuff coming, but in most places Bear worked the casualties more subtly and to better effect.

In general, the trilogy was filled with plenty of action, lots of guts and glory, sharp edges and people cutting themselves thereon (yay for a book with consequences), and characters who felt real. Prose was occasionally sloppy, but perhaps this wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the prose wasn’t so elegant in parts (I know, if this compliment were anymore backhanded it would smack me on the rebound). Still, the inconsistency draws the eye. There’s an enjoyable sense of wonder about everything that unfolds, whether fabulous or catastrophic, which is a definite plus for my science fiction reading list. My complaints hardly rise to the level of quibbles, and there’s certainly both fun and engaging insight to be had from reading these three books. So I say to you: go forth, buy (or borrow) and read these three books.

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10 Jun 2006, by

Tab closing time

The latest set of links that have caught my eye:

There we go. Down to thirty-three tabs. That’s manageable.

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The rabbits ate two of the tomato plants. They had chicken wire around them! I don’t know how they did it!

Dream of two nights ago in extended entry.

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So I’m gardening a lot more this year than last. My parents put all kinds of flowers up in the front yard, so there are pretty annuals out there to go with the perennials. I am still fighting the honeysuckle pretty vigorously in the back yard, but everything I’ve hacked down thus far has really opened the yard up. I should have cut back this aggressively last year too, but I didn’t know any better. Meanwhile, I’m pretty pleased with the herbs this season. Catnip, mint, sage and lemon balm all came back in their containers, and they look really good. Well, the sage looks a little lopsided, and I might try to take some cuttings from it and make more sage that’s not so top heavy. Handling cuttings is an advanced gardening technique to a novice like me. I love the sage, and this year it’s blooming! Also the mint looks surprisingly scraggly, but I have faith in it. The lemon balm wants a bigger pot, and I thought about planting it in the yard for all of fifteen seconds, then I read it was very invasive, and decided to keep it in its existing pot. It’s not like I actually use it for anything but looking at. The garlic chives survived the winter because I brought it indoors, and it looks good too.

As for new herbs, I bought a small basil plant at the grocery store and it’s not doing so well, which is disappointing. I never got any basil to grow last year either (though I only tried from seed), and it’s hands down the herb I use most. I got a small cilantro plant from a nursery near here and it’s doing astonishingly well (also blooming!) and I’m thinking of taking seeds from it for next year (yet another advanced gardening technique). However, the cilantro I planted from seed this year is just as puny as the one I tried to grow from seed last year, so I’m going to have to figure out how to grow them from seed between now and then.

I wanted to put a raised bed in the yard, but the botanical gardens says they can’t deliver my recycled plastic lumber until August, so I just used the patch where I intend to put the raised bed next year. In it I have planted: four tomato plants, two watermelon plants and three cucumber plants. Three of the tomato plants are flowering.

I’m looking forward to eating things I grew with my own hands.

For those of you who don’t like the day in the life posts, I’ll be putting up a review next.

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