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 so...in 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

Gradual

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...

1961
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

Revisited

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

Beliefs

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.

Well.

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

Roma

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 

Ordinary

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!!!!