Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good intentions

Most often, when you see one person writing about another person's book, they're trying to tell you why you should or should not buy/read the book. Well, you already know what I think of should, and I'm not telling you you shouldn't buy, or like, Eric Greitens' The Heart and the Fist. I do, however, regret buying it. It was an Audible credit too, and those are precious to me. Still, it's an instructive regret.

Eric Greitens is, I am sure, an admirable human being. If you ever find yourself behind enemy lines, you'd want him to come and get you, all that Navy SEAL and boxing moxie. I'm sure he's perfectly good at what he does. Not altogether clear on what that is, these days, between the Navy and the non-profit, but the fault is in me, rather than the internet.

You see, I got a little disgusted. It is so far one of only two audiobooks ever that have irked me so profoundly that I cannot finish them. First of all, there's the reading. I know that there is a strange misunderstanding that says that authors make the best readers for their books. This clearly does not relate to reality very well; or rather, it only works if the author is, by some gracious accident, actually a good reader (hello Stephen Fry!) or knows better (Terry Pratchett maybe? His books always have the best readers). Many are fine, but unexciting (sorry Neil Gaiman. You are good at a great many others things, including, oddly enough, doing cameos in other people's audiobooks). Some are outright bad. Greitens has a cadence to his reading which may be a side effect of the unaccustomed adventure of being audio talent; to me, it is reminiscent of both JFK and, at times, William Shatner. The pauses! The emphasis! It may do well enough for a speech or an episode, worthy only of a gentle ribbing; but four hours in, I start to get more than a little antagonistic every time I hear him insert Capital for Extra Emphasis. It grates on the nerves, grates like cheese grates that I keep cutting myself with for some reason.

Let my hypothesize that I had bought the paperback instead. That is best. Would that be better? Well, it would. The voice in my head would be better. My real disappointment is not, alas, confined to the narration. That would be lovely, and easily remedied. The narration is not why I wanted to read this book.  I wanted to read it because I thought that it would be interesting to hear what someone who'd been trained as a Duke graduate and Rhodes scholar to be a critical thinker, and who wanted to help in the broadest sense, would give as his reasoning for giving up his individual power to decide to join the Navy. I really have a great respect for people who can be a part of such a non-individual, hierarchical effort and yet not lose their individuality or their capacity for critical thinking. I respect people who are willing to compromise and fight for a good cause imperfectly. One of the things I like best about Orwell is that he had the courage of his opinions and actually fought in a fight he believed in, even if "his" camp was disorganised and, to some extent, corrupt. I respect people who trust themselves to assess the situation and be able to know when the corruption/chaos outstrip the good being done. This is where Greitens really lets me down.

He isn't a great writer. That's not, in itself, so insurmountable; but it results in him using a lot of cliches. The book, the part of it I could bring myself to read, reads like a movie novelisation. The boxing, the tests of endurance, the high-minded yet ill-defined philosophy, it is all very Karate Kid. The dismissal of academia and a career as somehow not active enough is vague and unsatisfying. There is no reasoning that I could find, nothing tangible. The stints of volunteering abroad that he describes don't betray a deeper knowledge. Maybe he has that knowledge of Bosnia and its history, or of Colombia; I just don't see it in the book. I don't even necessarily want to fault him for not having that deeper knowledge, though I have many doubts about being a foreigner trying to help in a culture that he/she understands poorly; but that's the part I'm interested in. I want to know - why Bosnia? Why Rwanda? There is suffering in many places. Why pick this one?

What finally turned me away from this book was this: he writes about his Navy SEAL training. This is where I really want to hear about what it is like to be a thinker, a humanist, a humanitarian in a military machine. Instead, what I get is a pep talk about how incredibly hardy and select Navy SEALs are.

I knew that already.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


Oh America, I love you, but you're so strange sometimes. Let me explain. Some time ago I got a ticket for speeding in Georgia. This will not surprise anyone who has travelled down the I-95 corridor. Anyway, I got it, I paid it, because it wasn't really worth contesting out of state. The stated speed seemed a tad high, but I was definitely speeding.

I know why one might round up now. There was a second "special" fine for being extra super fast. O...K. I called about this strange thing, and clearly I was not the first person to be upset by this rather predatory set up. It's smart, I admit - get someone to admit to speeding on a ticket people from out of state are not likely to contest, and when they have implicitly admitted, hit them with with a second fine which will now be hard to contest. Easy out of state cash! Because you're totally not the same country.

Well, I'm from a heavily federalised country, so such practices are not entirely foreign (ha!) to me. It gets better though. I start to worry about points, and whether this impacts my naturalization application and alll that. I find out that the two states do, in fact, have an agreement about this, but only for the serious stuff. So if you get a DUI or the like, that costs you points. If you speed, it goes into you record but doesn't cost you points. It's like someone said "you know, that's going to be an awful lot of paperwork, and, you know, it's only speeding, and who knows what that lot in Georgia is up to. Maybe they have different measurements? Anyone know if they use miles? Anyway, not worth the bother, is it?"

So strange.

Monday, May 06, 2013


Here's one I made earlier:

Neil Gaiman's talk about books and the future of writing and publishing - that's the catalyst. I link it because it is great food for thought.

I talked about it with the Spouse, and then with my Honourable Colleague, and between all of those an interesting conversation developed. I will pen this (ha! not literally) and then invite feedback from Said Colleague, because dialogue is what makes life worth living. You may or may not hear from her.

I love books. I love honest-to-goodness hardcopy books. I love their bookness in my hands. This is reading. I have discarded books before for being ugly or having the wrong font. Digital books? All ugly books, aren't they? I own no Kindle, or Nook, or any such thing.

I am no laudator temporis acti (praiser of things past; a classical debating position). Digital books are the future. I don't hate them. They're just not good at being print to me, even the prettiest formats. I might argue for a reasonable debate on the topic but why? It is reading. Emotion is part of the picture. Here's how I see it: Gaiman is right that flexibility is what makes digital books great. The Kindle, by the way, isn't it. You think this is about fonts? It isn't, of course. It is about getting a book any which way. You want print, because you're off to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness, or because you're not on a (reliable) power grid? Here you go. Print on demand in your chosen size? Can do. You want a signed first edition with gold leaf for your bookcase? You can have that. Want it in audio? Human read read for entertainment, text to speech for your textbooks? All of this exists. I think (and hope) that all of these will continue to exist, perhaps in greater abundance, side by side.

Great flexibility is not the problem. Change is not the problem. It is a lack of flexibility that really holds us up, and bothers me. That book you buy on your Kindle, is that really yours? My wonderful stacks of Audible audiobooks, are they mine? What happens if I close my account, or they do?

This deserves a ponderous silence.

Because if this is a long-term loan, if I can't give it to a friend or bequeath it to my children, then they've no business taking so much of my money. If access is at the sellers behest, then I don't truly own any of it. Publishers and content distributors rightly get into hot water for not being flexible enough, for having DRM (which doesn't work, and does not deter piracy) and for moderating access (Kindle just a day or two ago finally made their iOS app accessible to blind and sort of to deaf-blind users; how many years did those folks wait for it?).

Access without gate keepers? I wish I could be as sure as Gaiman is. I wonder if we're not just swapping out the old gate keepers for new ones, and stricter ones.

Friday, May 03, 2013

In which I forego the use of "should" except in the strictest didactical use cases

My current exercise of mind is this: I am giving up should.

Should, the dictionary tells us, is the past tense of shall, but really, it is so much more than that. It is forever the favoured tool of torment of the Supposed Moral Imperative. I demonstrate:

"I really should get the camera fixed"
"You should really lose some weight"
"He should have ordered pizza"

Most common usage:
"I should get more exercise"

Consider this for a moment. Should assumes that there is a correct way of going through life and you, my dear, are not doing it right. A thousand cats on the internet tell you


Moreover, should is vague. Is it necessary? Is it desirable? If so, why not say so? There is also an implied third person here. Whether that is a super ego, your internalised 3rd grade English teacher, or the internet, the implication here is someone out there is judging you. While they may indeed be judging you, there is surely no need to ventriloquise?

In truth, if I am in charge of my own actions, there are only two options: I either want to do something, or need to do it. If neither, why do it? If both, well yathzee! I surely can bloody well take responsibility for what I do, or can't do?

So here goes, try it out:

"I don't want to get the camera fixed, but I need it for panoramic dog photography. So, hello obnoxious quest for service!"

And better still:

"The hell with gyms. I'm going for a walk. And then I am going to write."

Best of all:
"Who the hell are you to tell me how I should look. Am I to be weighed in a sling? Also, pizza makes me bloated. LONG LIVE INDIAN FOOD."

Well, no. The best of all, I find, is that now I have to figure out what is enjoyable, what is critical, and what is not. I want to learn how to touch type (embarrassing, I know). I want to learn archery! I need to get the car fixed (atually in the shop now!).

It's taking me a while to switch, but I swear it makes me consider what I do and why for all the right reasons.

You may still use shall. It so brightly imperious.

Is this it?

Is this it?

Today is the future I promised myself, the time when I would live up to my expectations, hopes and aspirations, when I will live life the way I wanted.

Is this it?

This is where I am in the world, and I do smell the lilacs (have you smelled the lilacs recently? best smell in the world) and know what I have. I enjoy what I have. I read books. I stop to look around (before I go back to Twitter). I tell my loved ones that I love them. I love nothing more than hugs.

Is that all?

These things I love and have learned to enjoy so much over the last three years - my Quiet Quest - is that not enough. Is that not what I wanted?

Not exactly.

No. No, I wanted something more, something bigger, something more aspirational. I wanted - I want - to be good. You know they say it takes 10,000 hours to learn a skill? I wanted to put in those hours and be actually, truly good. Then, when I'm good, I can wield my skills for good, not evil.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A few notes

1. It's Crucible time, the only time I ever think "Man, I wish I were in Sheffield"

2. I am currently reading Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, a collection of gaslamp fantasy stories. I was a little worried that it would be either cutesie or nostalgic. It is instead dark and well-researched, and reminds me most of my days reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

3. I finished that mindfulness book. It is, in spite of its inauspicious beginning and its self-help label, a book that is pragmatic, clear, and actually helpful. Don't buy the hype, friends, insanity is overrated.

4. I am also reading The Heart and the Fist. I am sure Eric Greitens is a great human being. His prose, on the other hand, laced as it is with cliches on every page, with his Emphatic Narration Full of Ponderous Pauses, makes me want to hide under a dictionary. It makes me want run in the fields shouting avant garde poetry just to cleanse my palate. This saddens me. I had high hopes.

5. Calming Manatees make everything better.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A marriage of sorts

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove"

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Lately, I have been thinking about taking the American nationality. This is not an easy decision and it is not born of pragmatism. I think of it as a marriage; not engaged in for practical reasons, but with many real, practical consequences.

I love living in the U.S. The fact that I married into it - that other momentous choice - only makes me delight more in it. I love the grandness of it, a grand design of a country full of grand spaces and grand thoughts. Coming from a little country as I do I appreciate it all the more. I love the aspirations this country has and its optimism. It has taught me to appreciate some things that looked unlikely - the military, long drives, even, at times, American football. So when I contemplate becoming a citizen, that's why; it is because I love it here. It is because this is where I am, not just geographically, but emotionally. This is home. I want it to be my home, well, maybe forever.

I am a commitment phobe, and that does not apply any less here. I am scared of throwing my lot in with America's. It does so many things I disagree with. It scares me, here in this country, to speak my mind. I am scared of what is being done with those drones, and when it will come home to roost; I am scared of what goes on Guantanamo, I am scared of what torture happened, of what rights of privacy are being quietly filched from American citizens, never mind dem furriners.

It is not that I believe that Belgium is better. It is only smaller, with a smaller capacity for both good and evil. Witness Congo and the long bloody struggle there; with more territory Belgium committed atrocities worthy of a larger country. In a short while, with a little power, Belgium did so much damage. The United States is so much bigger, so much more powerful, and I only one small foreign person. Like Piglet, I stand here trembling, a little worried that I will get blown away.

What to do? 

Hitchens says, in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, "The more fallible the mammal, the truer the example." What he means by that, is that, not only are all heroes flawed, the fact that they are flawed shows all of us (who are flawed) that people with their shortcomings can do their small, good thing in this hurricane. America is both heroic and flawed. It's strange that I should get my news from the BBC because I find so many of the American news outlets too partisan, yet buy into a partisan concept of the United States in my fear of committing. I will correct myself. Any country is a conversation (albeit a little one-sided in some countries), this one more so than most. The conversation changes as different people speak up; it is a dialogue, even at its most strident. This cannot be taken for granted. Country of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Allen Ginsberg*, Hitchens**, Greenwald, and they are not alone, not silenced or forgotten. I will do my best to join that great America, that long dialogue.

The papers are in the mail. Wish me luck.

* "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 

It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again."

**After I wrote this, I played a game of What Would Hitchens Say, expecting to find some well-reasoned essay on why he became an American. I am touched by what I found instead; it is closer, in the end, to my own motivation than I had expected.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shame, victory, and Margaret Thatcher

Today, I will be talking to you only in other people:

On shame, pretty and bewildering:

On victory, dubious and upbeat:

On Margaret Thatcher:
"Mark the sequel: Not long afterwards, I was at a reception in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. She came. (I'll try and keep this brief.) A mutual Tory friend offered to introduce us. I agreed with some alacrity. The subject of the moment was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I held one view on this. She held another. The introduction was effected. Did I imagine it, or did she recognize the name of the scribe who had hymned her feminine allure? At once we were embroiled in an argument on the subject of racism and decolonization. I was (I only mention it) correct on my facts as well as my principles. She was lousy on both. But what a bonny fighter! She wouldn't give an inch. I found myself conceding her a trivial point, and bowing as I did so. She smiled.
"Bow lower," she said.
Suddenly robbed of volition, I complied.
"No -- much lower."
By now near to drowning in complicity and subjection, I obeyed. She withdrew from behind her back a rolled-up copy of the Parliamentary orders of the day, and she gave me a sound smack before I could --how does one put this? -- straighten up. I regained the perpendicular in some blushful confusion and difficulty, to see her swing away and look over her shoulder, the words "naughty boy" floating over me in my near trance-like state, as the journo witnesses closed in to say, "What was that all about?" I told them they would never understand, and -- what do you know -- they never did."

The grandiloquent loses his tongue:

The quieter man waxes eloquent:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Elves for beginners

I grew up reading a lot of world war 2 history. Specifically, I read a fair amount about the Holocaust. This is what happens if you're bookish in Belgium. People love to invade, so there's a lot of history. It's Belgium. So cute. So conveniently located. This early reading perhaps accounts for my tendency to think about The Jews in hushed, reverent tones, the way one might about a recently deceased relative or an endangered species.

Belgium is a lapsing catholic country, and I a humanist in it. One of the two places I can claim as a home town is quite full of muslims, so I grew up around lots of headscarf-wearing, Arabic (and Turkish) speaking girls my age, even if my school in the other home town was so obliviously white they thought the second generation Italians were exotic. I grew up around Turkish and Moroccans folks, Greeks, Poles, Italians, take your pick; but not jews. Never jews.

It wasn't until I was well into university that I met my first real live Jewish person, on a summer job. She was Georgian, loud, confident, fun and altogether something else. And she was from Antwerp, of course, where those people with the hats sell diamonds.

She didn't have a hat.

I moved to America. Lovely, America. America is full of jewish people, and whenever I find out a friend is jewish, I have to supress a little cry of "really? how exciting!" because that isn't polite. You see, I was dutifully taught abous muslim customs and festivals in school, and you couldn't miss the catholics. Jews now; ah. I got taught plenty about jews. Just not about...current ones. Mostly, it was death and suffering. Not so much live, contented jews. Jews buying pie. Jews making coffee. They were unexpected. As a consequence, I feel like a hobbit (we've established Belgians are hobbits, right*?) encountering elves for the first time, with a slight thrill. I mean, look at those elves, they're all tall and long-haired and they sing all the time, and I don't understand what the songs are about but they can run on snowdrifts, and how cool is that?


Remind me what Passover is again?

It's exotic. I can´t help it. Every time I schedule an event over a jewish holiday I have to be schooled, only to also forget the next one. I´m like a 19th century anthropologist - all inquisitiveness and misinformation; that's the voice in my head anyway. In conversation I try to be just a tad more sensitive. I still forget that there is no Christmas, even though I at one point lived with a (non-Christian) Turkish flatmate so overwhelmed by the Christian show of "look! trees! we cut some down for you!" that she left the country for a week (apparently that impulse is not unique)

Oh, and THEN I met some orthodox jews. You know, the whole no driving on Saturdays band. I don't stare. I really don't. I don't ask about the timers, the kitchens or the clothes or anything. See?

So if you meet me, and you're jewish, try to forgive me. You can let me know if I'm forgetting a holiday and I, in turn, will refrain from asking what you need it for. I promise I won't look at you funny, and I will do my best to ignore the random bursts of songs in Quenya.

*Belgians love elevenses, and biscuits with their coffee. Possibly whipped cream in the coffee, and some booze. After that, perhaps a beer and a cheese plate?)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This fine experiment

Think of what it would be like, this life, if it could be taken at face value. If I could treat it as a series of experiments.  Try something. Fail? Take notes, try again with adjustments. Succeed? Take notes and see if the success can be replicated. The outcome can only be discovered through the experiments.

I forget where I read this now, and the context, but I was reading an article recently that suggested a different reading to Frankenstein. The problem, the article posited, was not that Victor Frankenstein created the monster, but that he abandoned it. To which I said, probably out loud "well, yes, how else would you read that?" I've always thought that the creature was very sympathetic, and intended to be so.

So with my life, cobbled together from the pieces of my past and circumstances, brought to life by the incomprehensible magic of the line of nows that lead there - it would be a mistake to reject it for not looking the way I imagined it. It would be a mistake because, quite apart from missing any merits that it has, in abandoning the life I have in favour of some illusory other life, some hypothetical future, I bring out the monster. The monster of the life I have rampages while I am away looking for a dream life.

The dream life? Maybe from afar. When I approach it, I find that this new life, too, is scarred and lopsided, and now wherever I walk I tread on the traces and debris of my rampaging creature. Now there are two monsters; because if I could not see the beauty in the face I myself made the first time round, how could I do better the second time?

This creature, this life I have, this wild experiment of mine, it shines, if I will only let the scars heal.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Where I get stuck in an airport

I’m sitting in an airport. I’m going to be stuck here for a few more hours. I am sitting on a fairly comfortable couch, the tri-lingual announcements echo overhead in one, two, three, and I sit here. It isn’t only true that happiness is found in unexpected places; I would say now that it is more easily found in unexpected places, that the lack of expectation creates a space for it. Expectation really is just pre-meditated resentment, and if I find myself in a place where no expectations apply…

I just finished a lovely book, a labyrinthine voyage of a book, I have a terrible cold and I’ve slept about four hours. Our plane keeps getting delayed, one, three, five hours away. I move through the airport as if through a foggy day in a Sherlock Holmes novel, as pleased as him with its shroud and hidden artifacts. This time is all mine. Some day I will have enough inner peace to create such time for myself, such fully available time, but for now I am content to accept it like a gift.

I hadn’t intended to stop here, but stop I did, so yes, I take off the cycle clips and stand for a moment, this is as close as I will get anytime soon to a month in a convent in the Pyrenees. There are multi-national wall plugs but no internet, or rather no internet I am willing to pay such extravagant fees for, and for this too I am grateful. I have tissues (with lotion, because my family loves me), I have books (one more print one, at least four audiobooks, and six or seven e-books), I have company I talk to or be quiet with. How churlish I would be to criticize this perfectly formed moment simply for happening here, at this time and place.

Of this time and place I could say this: it holds everything, like all time in airports, I could go anywhere, the Aeroflot flight is gone, El Al may still be there, Bujumbura is not so far; I have no desire to go anywhere except, eventually, home. The noises are just rustlings that make up the silence in my head, the place (here, home, I’ve flown out of here a million times, only now I leave here to go home) is somewhere but most of all it is Airport, and so nowhere at all. Stairs zoom soundlessly across the tarmac to waiting planes, luggage carts are visible in the view of Outside, outside of this decontaminated zone, this quarantine area.

Soon I will get some tea, and after, I may read some more of my book. I have no other plans.

Friday, February 22, 2013

No exit always means exit

I am stealing that title, though I don't remember who from. A passing thought on my current reading, Omweg naar Santiago: he writes about Jorge Luis Borges' death. I've not read Borges, no desire. Too labyrinthine, too meta. This amused me anyway, since I have, perhaps appropriately, read about Borges a fair amount - Nooteboom quotes the headline from newspaper Liberation on Borges' death.


*Footnote on everything here: Nooteboom also says he wishes someone would name a star after Borges, leaving a "thing named Borges;" it reminds me of Hitchens and his asteroid of course. And of those two very different men meeting in a strange, shadowy way.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mind over...something

My ritual is in full progress and I am, as promised, making my way through Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. After some very annoying new agey mumbo jumbo about ancient wisdom and everlasting happiness, the authors thankfully get down to business, and spend some time explaining the SCIENCE! of it all, which I did appreciate. Then they introduce chocolate. So far, so good?

The other book on the burner, going up in slow, licking flames, is Omweg naar Santiago, a lovely, slow book, full of obscure detail and warm prose. Spain twenty years ago - it is like a wormhole, but then I guess that all books are wormholes, so this one doubles up and removes one to another place entirely swiftly but gently, like the nurse at the end of The Streetcar Named Desire, it's here to take you away. You get to go home again only because Franco is dead and Nooteboom mild-mannered.

Cees Nooteboom, by the way, is the best living author writing in Dutch, and if you get half a chance - much of his work has been translated - you should stop for his books like you would stop for your first gothic cathedral on a trip through Europe. He has exceptional control of his language, and no one else that I've read can even approach his standard of travel writing.

Finally, there is the audiobook for Privilege of the Sword, with its Austen-meets-Wilde cynicism. I love how unpredictable she is, how she consistently refuses tropes. It makes for  pleasant change from the endless series of formula-bound fantasy books.

Not a bad little harvest from my combine of a reading mind.

Friday, February 15, 2013


In the morning, pick up the phone. Check. Anyone love me on Facebook? Twitter?

Twitter. So many smarter people - articles lead places I can't follow. Or silliness. High level of.

Pick earrings - what matches best? What makes me look best?

Check the mirror. More make up needed, but no time. No skill. Skills no match for face.

Work. Check email. Do work. Beat my head against the wall of things I don't know. Or manipulate the lesser things with ease. Greater than and smaller than both.

Lunch. Alone, things to do, to learn. Work at my skills. Fail. Fail at people. Am I lonely? Or with people, and fail to get out, or fail to learn new things.

Check the phone again. Am I clever enough to say something to the universe?

Not clever enough. Did I eat too much? Am I putting on weight again? Check a reflective surface. Not too bad.

Mostly not clever enough. Something beeps. Attend, and forget self for a few moments. Immersed, free.

Surface on the drive home. Talk. Compare. Do I talk too much? Fail at conversation, I do talk too much. Home. The mirror again. Still disappointing. Why would anyone?

Dinner. Smiles in public, keen awareness of self. Eat. Forget for a little. Talk about adventure. Smile some more. Get smiles in return.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


UPDATE: It says it has "the secret to sustained happiness." I don't know if I can keep reading this. Please tell me this isn't going to be like The Path Less Travelled. This is why I don't read self-help. Pff.

I always think of the same thing on ash wednesday, which today seems especially apt:

"Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?"

Except without the past glory and old age.

T.S. Eliot, always good for some nicely worded doom.

I have no resolution for my non-religious lent, because I can't focus on anything for long enough to come up with any ideas. Wait, no, screw that. This lent, I will be mostly working through Mark Williams' Mindfulness*. That might actually help with my perpetual distraction.

If in doubt, do something.

*Though the endorsements on the site are terrifying.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


I'm a runner. Not in the sense of running long distance (which 5k is not) but in the Doctor Who "Run!" sense. As a commitment phobe, I always have one foot out the door of whatever commitment, country, job or situation I'm in.

I'm like a goat in a pasture, tied to a stake. I get impatient with commitments, and I'm wily about getting out.

Tug, tug.

Tug, tug.

Tug, tug, tug, tug stupidgorramstakeletmeGO.

Chew rope.

Sometimes I get briefly distracted by delicious dandelions, and that's nice too. Sometimes there are daisies right there by my hooves. Most days the horizon just looks really pretty to my little rectangular-pupiled eyes.

Yet I am exceedingly loyal also; I have two hands full of friends I have kept in spite of changing locations (mine and theirs), I have been in my job longer than I would have considered possible, I'm a long-standing volunteer, and, heaven help me, I'm married and still very pleased to be so.

I'm one of those people people count on. It's very awkward, I have to tell you, and I'm eyeing the exit the whole time. Don't ask me how I manage to stick around for the most part, because I don't exactly know.

Just don't ask me to buy any houses or have any babies. Maybe someone can do that while I'm not looking.

Bright and shiny

I am a terrible multi-tasker. I mean by that that I am both prolific in my multi-tasking and that it ultimately has less than helpful outcomes. Oh, I love the stimulus of working on two or three things at the same time, and it caters to my squirrel-like attention span. It makes my brain purr. And yet - it doesn't serve me all that well. It breaks up my already so fragmented attention, and the quick switches mean that I will forget what I am doing half a dozen times a day. It means that I am doing two or three (sometimes four!) things in more time than it would take to do them sequentially (since I'm always having to track back to where I was). It means I do all of them worse.

The saddest, most desperate victim of my multi-tasking is my memory. My natural muddle* gets amplified like a whisper in one of those acoustic shell speakers - those things are amazing - and I completely lose track of the bigger picture. Then, when I'm done, I'm like a sleepwalker waking up in an unfamiliar street. How did I get here? What did I do? This wasn't how I'd planned it.

Rise & shine…

Why? Because what I enjoy most of all is losing myself completely in a single thing - a more concentrated forgetting of self in learning and remembering something new.**

*Whenever I say muddle, I think of E.M. Forster's Maurice and his existential confusion, his difficult trip to the truth. That is exactly what I mean.
**By the way, Internet, just to let you know, this whole blog is a sort of conversation with myself. You're welcome to sit in, but it's not all that exciting. Being public just makes me think differently, like dressing up for work, you know? And I like the vague possibility of feedback.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sweet Victory

I am talking about HMS Victory of course; at least in the sense of a battleship victorious, and in the sense that it, like me, is still alive.

That's right, friends, I am thirty-four.

When I was, oh, maybe eleven, we talked in my terrific non-confessional morality class about differences between men and women, and how a majority of women had difficulty imagining their life beyond the age of seduction, meaning, presumably, courtship, marriage and babies. That was the exact phrase, and it stuck with me. It also kind of made me smile then, because I had no trouble at all imagining myself at thirty-four.

It hasn't exactly turned out the way I expected (things usually don't) but I like to think that my eleven-year-old self wouldn't have objected too much. Thirty-four is fun. Thirty-four is comfortable in a way I wouldn't have believed - I like myself better (some of the time), like my life better (some of the time) and like what I do better (some of the time) than I would have expected. It is also a lot more ignorant that I thought it would be. When you're eleven, thirty-four seems control. Knowing. That has not worked out so well. I feel more ignorant and out of my depth than before; and less in control than ever. I know nothing, not a sliver of a fraction of anything, and never has the image of the torch in the dark from that same class in morality seemed so true. I wish for nothing so much as infinity time just to learn, to have the privilege of seeing a little more of the world.

The other unexpected thing about being thirty-four is the fear. There is so much to be afraid of when you're grown up. Unemployment illness losing a loved one identity theft car accidents climate change extremists sociopaths with assault rifles NUCLEAR GORRAM SUBMARINES. It's a lot. When I was eleven I just assumed immortality, and I didn't know about the submarines. It makes it hard to get out the door, hard to get anything done that may in any way jeopardise the job/life/relationships/loved ones/planet/insert as appropriate; that is to say, everything. It takes a lot more effort.

But it is the only way to stay young and to learn.  A progressive victory over sloth and terror.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Over on Total Drek, there is a parody of the famous Obama Change poster with a picture of Darwin. It says:
Very gradual change we can believe in
Not only does this amuse me, but it is also true; revolutions and epiphanies are all very well, but it is practice, the daily business of living that makes the difference.

Yesterday I did a small brave thing. It was only a small thing. Today I am back to watching bad movies  (and Battlefield Detectives - or as I like to think of it, CSI: Battlefield) and not managing to do the ironing. I'm reviewing budgets and tech lists in my pajamas. Monday will require more small bravery (which may or may not be budget related.) So I evolve, day by day, hoping to be a slightly different creature in the morning.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I hope this doesn't end up on Twitter*

Let me kick in some open doors here.

(I've slept three hours. So I get to be obvious)

Much as I am a relatively late adopter, I like Twitter. I like how, unlike the Facebook of Doom, it is simple and usable (reservations about restrictions on third party apps aside). Not that I tweet much. To quote @_snape_
"You think I'm not online. But I'm always here. Even if I'm not tweeting. I'm here. Scrolling. Judging"

Most of all, I like that it allows me to:
a) be a nerd in a pretty nerdy space - to talk work and tech and silly small discoveries
b) be amused, enlightened, or both
c) give direct feedback to people
That latter one is 99% an opportunity to tell some mildly famous person that I like something they did. I like that it gives me an opportunity to err on the side of complimenting and thanking people without invading their space (I've talked before about how I terribly timid I am about approaching people in the flesh, and how I am always worried about being disrespectful when I am trying to be the opposite).

I like that it gives me a low stakes opportunity to be nice. The judging is just a bonus.

*Yes, nerdy reference to One Epic Knight

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gird your loins

Update: The good news is - no bad news. Woo!

Tomorrow is going to be an important day. I am reminded of one of my favourite poems, a translation of a non-existent poem from a novel...

Tip up this year on the fulcrum of its final serif
Revolve it through the degrees from right to upright
Like a lifted flagpole without a flag
Or a flat raised upon the stage of an empty theater
Before which histories will soon be enacted.
Now drop it farther, push it entirely over
As the statue of a deposed leader is thrown
Supine, his gloved finger that pointed Onward
Driven into earth to point Endward instead.
See what you have accomplished?
This rarity comes but once in centuries:
A year that can be overthrown but not reversed,
And after all our labors seems to become itself again.
It is not so. As always, we will never be the same.
The poem occurs very early on in the novel - John Crowley's The Translator - and sinks it, promising something the book can't quite live up to. Tomorrow is the fulcrum, the serif on which everything turns.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


I mentioned I was vaguely rereading Brideshead Revisited. Of course, when I say re-reading, I really mean that I am listening to Jeremy Irons reading it. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that I did actually read it. Maybe I just saw the series - I know I did that; and I am almost sure I read the book. Do I not seem too young to be this old, this forgetful?

When it comes right down to, I return to what is old and comfortable. It came right down to it this morning, when I was awake at 4:49 am and trying to get back to much-needed sleep, so I made oatmeal first, because oatmeal is soothing. After some meanderings around the house I returned to bed and after going over my collection of podcasts (history of the early roman empire, lecture on Turing, lectures on Dickens, lectures on paleopathology; and This American Life) I settled in with Brideshead. It, too, was soothing, reminding me of the era of which it declares the end. The encircling wars make the remembrance keener, and while they talk of Brancusi and T.S. Eliot, the reminders of Wilde* and Ruskin are very obvious. Those stories of Oxford and readings of Wilde, Ruskin and Pater are so much the setting of my first serious reading in English that while I haven't picked up anything by Wilde in maybe ten years, and hope to have moved on some from my teenage fondness of pretty blonds and pretty books, the mannerisms still linger in my mind and my vocabulary**. Beautiful prose (not a word that can be missed) and the resonances of my first literary excursions into English were precisely right. The world war 2 frame story and Great War*** backstory only make it more apt. I eventually went to sleep and dreamt of summer's end.

*I was going to link to something more interesting than a wikipedia page; and saw the first entry in google these days is this awful thing, which then also claims to be official. It's a very peculiar thing to say when the author has been dead since 1900, and for him to lumped in with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe...I wonder if this is Merlin Holland's doing, though it seems unlikely and yes, this is not my topic today, so I won't research it, I will only find it depressing. That said, it cheers me to find that Wilde's great-grandson both read Classics at Magdalen and is a computer programmer. At least according to Wikipedia.
**Yes, I am blaming Willde for my silliness and affectations.
***Right, I don't think I've told you about how I keep reading and writing about the Great War at intervals. Story for another day.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Youse (you'll excuse the stealing of a much-needed plural from Northern Irish English) know that I am frivolous. Such is the reality. Every once in a while, though, reality pokes me with a stick and reminds me that I need a little more seriousness, that I need to use my brain. Usually I take it out on learning five words of the nearest language or reading a Book on a Topic, and then lose interest. Bear of Little Brain, me. Only it won't do. It just won't. Part of my spate of recent blog posts is motivated by that realisation: while the status quo here is hard-won, both professionally and personally, it effectively means that I am going backward. I haven't grown intellectually in years. My only significant area of growth has been my - oh what a platitude - heart. I'm growing into my humanity, if you like, getting better at life, better at dealing with people, including myself. It counts, of course. In a way, I've been throwing myself off cliffs and into adventures all my life, including with being board chair (fear and trembling all the way!), doing Nanowrimo, running that 5k; but what comes of it?

I still feel insanely inadequate as a chair, I've written these books I can't face editing, I have another one I've started and can't really make up my mind on, and what, at the end of the odyssey, does it do? It seems so little. My day job, which does a little good in an everyday sort of way. My volunteer work which keeps things afloat for a little longer perhaps. A little money given away. A lot of pointless writing.

As, prodded by a few small and big things, I start to question my life and my beliefs, I find myself ill-equipped to adapt. There's a reason I believe many things unquestioningly - it's because questioning everything all the time is a tiresome business. A little more of critical look would be good though. A little more analysis would be wholesome.

Challenges are, it seems, my only way to grow, and there are plenty of those. Some I can't choose, and have to face. Some I get a say in. All it is is life and learning, always more learning, always trying to stay limber, stay open-minded, and stay alert.

The post where I judge myself for using the word "adorable"

The Spouse has on occasion been noted to be a tad optimistic, in the vein of the Fast Show's "Brilliant!" sketch. I don't know if I can blame him for this, but I think I am guilty of doing the same with exclamation of "Adorable!"

It started off so innocently. I love puppies and kittens and baby animals as much as the next person, and they have cheered many a gloomy day (gloomy Dane?) with their cuteness. In this context, adorable is a perfectly appropriate, if over-used, adjective. Only I didn't stop there. I started applying it to people, and while that was and is well-intentioned enough, I would feel a little patronised if a small Belgian were to call me adorable. Yet I didn't stop there either. I applied it to articles and objects well beyond the intended reach of the adjective.

Given my recent martial viewing, it is only a matter of time before I start calling nuclear weapons and assault rifles adorable. This must be stopped. Someone roll up a newspaper and hit me with it the next time I try this tomfoolery.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I had a better title, but I can't remember it now

You'll all be familiar enough with my love of other people's skills (SCIENCE! Music! Dancing! etc.etc.) It's not often I get reminded of my own, such as they are. Over lunch today I was reading a column by someone (who shall go boldly unnamed, who am I to throw labelled stones?) whom I have some reason to respect.


It is possible that Christopher Hitchens ruined me for column reading; but I don't think my standards are entirely unreasonable. Here was, however, a column on a topic of interest, no longer than columns usually are, written by someone of considerable intelligence; there I was halfway through, shouting at the author to get to the point, or to at least provide me with a fleeting illusion that there was such a thing. Alas, no. Not at all.

Dear author, friend, are there no editors where you live? Personally I think that a good education (otherwise in ample evidence) should lead one to acquire good writing skills, but failing that, surely there is an editor in there somewhere? Please? No? Did you hurt them with sticks? Are they afraid of you? Because being mean to your editor is wrong, you know that. Anyone who's read Fruits Basket would know, and I strongly suspect you of loftier reading.

No, no, no. I read another column, benefit of the doubt, you know. It was not* to be. It could have been so good. It could have been so funny. It's not like being crotchety is a bad premise for column. You're just doing it wrong. There, now. We can't all be good at all things. Me, I'm bad -or worse yet, mediocre - at almost everything. It's ok. There's people for that. You have a brilliant mind. Please just pry your editor from under that desk and have a nice, long, constructive chat. It's worth it, I promise.
I look forward to seeing the results.

*Though column nr. 3 wasn't bad. Which was nice.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hey moonlight

We all have our superpowers. The trouble with superpowers is that you generally have to get your planet blown up before you discover them.

It really annoys me when people argue with me about intelligence when I say I'm really only average. It isn't a question, my dears, it's a statement. It is surely clear by now that I love nothing so much as a brilliant mind. Especially  if it wears glasses. It's just a joy to be around, even if it is intimidating and I can't keep up. But it isn't me. My point is that clearly my brain, while promising early on, is not going to be my superpower. Too frivolous. Too easily distracted by smart people in cute glasses (or cute people in smart specs)*.

Then someone blows up your planet with a giant laser.

Nothing focuses the mind like a little adversity. The superpowers become evident. The first and greatest is the network. Like silk** body armour, my network of friends and family absorbs the energy of the impact. Bruises form quickly, but the worst of the blow is deflected***.

I have quality friends and family. DuPont couldn't engineer them better.

The second superpower is connected to the first. Protected by that first one, I find that the frivolity flips into a decent sense of humour, and the gentle learning from my network has long since taught me that the universe is not out to get me. Bad things happen to everyone, and I have a good capacity for happiness. That's not a given. I'll take it.

Credit to this song by pennybirdrabbit for the title thought and to this video for slow motion footage of shooting body armour.

*Though actually hardly any of my intellectual heroes iconically wear/wore glasses. I guess Stephen Fry has reading glasses now, but that hardly counts.
**I'd say Kevlar, but my friends are definitely more silk than Kevlar. Besides, spider silk is the future. Spider silk and nanotubes. Some of my friends are likely nanotubes.
***Well yeah, what do you expect after a week of my watching nothing but martial tv?

Friday, January 11, 2013

In the beginning

It begins with wearing a bedsheet at age 17 or so, and reading Cicero in class
Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?*

We did this for a grade and I got - drama and literature! - full marks. I have in fact also played the tiny role of Cicero in Julius Caesar** which is possibly - Roman "history" and English lit! - my favourite Shakespeare, but that is really only another effect of the same cause. No, correction; perhaps the cause was the first book I ever got from the grown up library I had been aspiring to for years. When they finally let me in at age, I think, twelve, it was a bit of a disappointment, the plots just didn't seem as good , but one read stood out. I promise I picked it up off the shelf with no knowledge of context, based on, presumably, a catchy back flap or good cover. It was the Aeneid. I tell you friends, if that particular smashing tale of warped heroism and dastardly gods doesn't win you for the Romans, nothing will. Nobody makes up history like the Romans.

*How much longer, Catilina, will you try our patience (I think)
**If anyone hasn't seen the play, please see the movie version with James Mason and Marlon Brando. Brando is terrible as Marc Anthony, but Mason is completely compelling as Brutus. And Brando, while not very good, does look very enticing. Maybe that'll convince you.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Oh botheration.

I had a perfectly good little pile of books beside my bed. Cees Noteboom's Omweg naar Santiago, Detour to Santiago, about the old pilgrim's route, The Hobbit, because, well, because, and Orwell's Burma Days. On Audible, I have Brideshead Revisited, as read by Jeremy Irons, and the sequel to Swordspoint. A nice varied, sensible collection. Well-rounded.

It was too much to expect that I might actually read any of it, and now I'm researching Roman military history and the life of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar is interesting, friend, really a fascinating man, but that is not the point. The point is that I have the attention span of a...**

This much the humanists who long ago thought Latin should be a big part of the secondary ed curriculum were right about* - Rome is the blueprint for western civilisation***, so we had better pay attention. It's no wonder I keep coming back to it. And Caesar was the end and beginning of it, a sort of perfect encapsulation of all that was best and most brilliant and most megalomaniac and omnivorous about the empire he made it into. A man more dangerous and unforgiving dead than alive.

*Clearly they succeeded in indoctrinating me. Well, they had six years.
**Some days I just wish I could spend six months in a convent in the Pyrenees to read my backlog of books. Only I'd probably just get side-tracked by local history 
***Which is why we should do battle re-enactments. In person or by simulation. I wonder if there's groups. It would be a great excuse for some armour 


I remember when I got married - I hadn't especially expected to marry - how it made me feel like suddenly I was a lot more normal. There was this frame of reference that everybody understood. I had a husband. It made me feel both comfortable and strange. Over time, that feeling has grown, not just with regards to my marriage, but with respect to the rest of my life. Oh, I'm foreign, but that's just exotic - besides, I'm a white girl from Europe, it hardly even adds a little spice to the mix. Over time, I have come to feel more and more like an imposter. The whole Nusbacher thing reminded me rather pointedly of all the things I hide, of all the ways in which I pass, because there's a comfortable category that I seem to fit in. It reminded me how afraid I am to be honest, how afraid of the consequences.

Who is that person anyway, that normal person?

It isn't even that I am so much stranger than I seem; it that I kind of wish I were. I kind of wish I would live a little more dangerously. Only I've fought so hard for this status quo, you see, that it seems like a good place to sit and relax for just a little while. Life doesn't work that way. I don't get a sit down.

I can't even say what I want, it's so scary. I can't even say "I wish to god I could be a writer, a proper one" because I'm scared of not being good enough. I quietly fail to mention my volunteer work at my day job. I shy away from talking politics. I steer away from people whose ideas (if not their selves) I think are revolting. I don't make the case. I keep my thoughts about life and sex and the world tidily tucked away. I can't even speak my turmoil, my small divergence from the norm. This is a public space. I'm keenly aware. No wonder I admire the hell out of moral courage. I don't have any. I open my mouth only in the safest spaces. I am respectful to the point of demureness.

It's not even as if I have anything special to hide. I'm only a white girl from Europe, after all.

Time to make some gorram mistakes.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

But everything is delicious here

You know, it's a good thing that I am no good at math, because at least that narrows things down a little. I was talking about heroes yesterday (please read that post if you haven't. It involves the Hamster.) and one of my first ones was Oscar Wilde* whose solution to choices was to always choose both. I really find it irksome how knowledge ends up parcelled up between different fields and experts, forcing me to choose.

Wherever possible, it must be said, I do choose both options. There is no reason I can't have it both ways. It isn't always comfortable or inexpensive is all. The only reason I don't have a degree in a different field to my own delightfully useless one is that I can't choose. I used to really want to be a lawyer. Seriously. A trial lawyer. It still appeals to me, though some of the lawyers I know have not, I must say, improved my opinion of the field.

Anyway, so when I was watching Time Commanders (see, I told you you had to read the previous post) and I remembered that I really thought about becoming a historian - and even more useless lovely discipline than my own - and it still really appeals to me. Archeology too - egyptology especially, competitive as it is and I am not. Psychology has always interested me and only my laziness and fear of math really put me off it. Architecture always seemed like the world's loveliest profession, so pleasing to the eye. Computer science? Fascinating and foundational.

Science too. Oh, don't think physics doesn't appeal to me because I suck at it. Some days, I think I married the Spouse just because he is good at science (and a languages. Bastard). But no, I married him for his good looks of course, science was just a bonus.

Thank goodness that education is expensive in the US** because otherwise I would have long since quit my job to take up continuous education. It's all so wonderfully interesting. Should I learn American Sign Language at least? Or take a class international studies (hah, international studies. What a name for a field)? Shall I take up Latin again?

In this candy shop, my dollar never buys enough different kinds, and my enjoyment of what I am tasting now is always a little infused with the thought of what to try next.

* Why is it that I vacillate between the wimpy but cultured and the physically courageous (and still quite cultured)? Does this mean I think Orwell is a step up from Wilde?
**Well, no, actually it's awful. You see my point though.

Do it anyway

UPDATE: I just read the Wikipedia discussion page for Nusbacher Yes, I am a nerd. I was checking the link and noticed the article was nominated for deletion since I first looked it up, so got curious. I am now terrified of her disapproval of my frivolity and admiration; but still think she's really awesome.

On New Year's Day, I was lying awake at 4:30 am, what with jetlag, when I suddenly thought

I wonder if Time Commanders is on YouTube?

Time Commanders, in case you were wondering, was a relatively short-lived BBC 2 show in which teams of four people re-enacted historical battles with a gaming engine. At the time I was oddly mesmerised by it, given that I am mostly anti-war, and I was very distressed when it was cancelled. Yet I lived, and here we are a decade later.

Wait, I have a point, I promise.

Yes, Time Commanders is, for the most part, on YouTube, and I have been thoroughly, if a little frantically, enjoying re-watching all of it. Among other things, I discovered that the second season was presented by Richard Hammond, beloved Hamster who almost died yet continues to present on Top Gear, another Unexpected Thing for TDEC to Love, i.e. the world's best car show.

Anyway, other things. So this show always had two war historians to advise and generally comment, one always the same, the other one of about four miscellaneous experts and writers. A nice setup. The resident expert was Dr. Aryeh Nusbacher, Senior Lecturer of War Studies at Sandhurst*, as they never tire of telling you on the program. A lovely enthusiastic old-fashioned war-mongering type. In a vague moment of curiousity I googled him.

Really, I'm getting to my point here.

Only Google did it wrong, you see, and kept retrieving me some Lynette Nusbacher. Then Wikipedia did it wrong and linked their correct name to this same lady person. I was irked, friends, because the internet is supposed to be my friend, and it was being difficult. Only it was like one of those times when your friends tell you that, really, you are wrong about there being unicorns (but they are perfectly plausible!) and you refuse to accept it. You see, the internet was right. Even after I realised that, my first thought was "Is Lynette ever a man's name?"

Let me spoiler you, friends, it isn't.

Which brings us to the whole thing where a Jewish-American strategist and war historian with wife and kids teaching at Sandhurst changes gender and then goes right on with life. At this point I just sat wordless for a moment or two, and then thought** "Well, good for him! Her, I mean. Give me a minute here to adjust." and also "Bless the U.K. and their army. They are clearly awesome." And then I spent a few minutes imagining what that would be like, how you would have that conversation with your presumably badass military boss. What it would be like to stand in front of a room of future officers, royals and all, who now have to call you ma'am. The awkward paperwork and conversations.

It puts things into perspective, I tell you, for sheer guts and determination.

It sets a whole new standard for doing Things Which Are Difficult. In 2013 then, I shall say to myself whenever I face an difficult or awkward situation "How does it compare to teaching at a military academy and telling your boss you are changing gender?"

Lynette Nusbacher, you are my hero. Heroine. Actually, I prefer hero, and it does get used as gender neutral. You know what I mean. You'll be my reminder to do it anyway***.

No, you literal-minded sods, yes, I am still female myself. Yes, I am still bleeding heart liberal generally opposed to war. Now go watch Time Commanders. Really. It's delightfully martial yet no people are killed. And there's the Hamster.

I wonder if she still smokes a pipe.

*Note for ye non-Brits - Sandhurst is the British Officer training academy, equivalent to West Point in the US. Yes, it is where William and Harry went.
**I lie, of course, because my real first thought was "Oh, what a waste of a lovely man." Only then did I get to the purported first thought. I'm sorry. My thoughts aren't always politically correct. She is still lovely, ok? Does that make it better or worse?
***My new theme song. Also a really terrific video. FRAGGLES!!!!