A Woman of the Iron People

A Woman of the Iron PeopleIn the great tradition of SF world-building, a human woman scientist contacts an alien people and discovers the varied richness of their civilization on a carefully conceived and depicted planet circling the star Sigma Draconis. Comparable in conception and scope to Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, and Nancy Kress’s An Alien Light, A Woman of the Iron People extends that tradition of strong characterization in a unique science fiction setting.

A Woman of the Iron People is concerned with anthropology and politics: Hovering over the planet throughout the book is the mother ship from Earth, torn by factions, sometimes an unreliable source of support for its field team. Yet all humans are sincere in their mission of exploration and in their determination not to harm the aliens whom they contact. Central to the story is Lixia, a woman whose quest for knowledge and analysis of her experiences, even in the face of the dangers of an unknown planet, give a sharp, vivid focus to the panorama of exploration. Her odyssey, and the way in which she confronts and interacts with the native cultures as she travels across the landscape, make A Woman of the Iron People a monumental work of contemporary science fiction. And with the publication of this book, Eleanor Arnason establishes herself as a significant and ambitious force in SF in the 1990s.

I said when I reviewed my 48th favourite book, Ring of Swords, I said that Eleanor Arnason transcends the label of being a feminist writer. You can always ensnare me if you can create a fictional society that makes me look our own society in a new way, makes me re-examine assumptions that we’ve always taken for granted. And that’s just what Arnason does, making her readers take a long, hard look at gender roles and at our attitudes towards gender.

In A Woman of the Iron People, my 39th favourite book, the human researchers find a civilization in which men, when they reach puberty, become too wild and aggressive to remain in society, and therefore must spend their adult lives wandering, solitary and feral, through the wilderness, returning only to mate. The adult females, then, are forever locked in a primitive, pastoral way of life; they can never advance to the point where their settlements would become anything larger than small villages, as larger settlements would prevent men from approaching when in heat. It’s a fascinating world, and I love how Arnason explores it–and how she explores what effect contact with it has on the human researchers.



I’m going to expand on a comment I left at Making Light, in response to the prompt, “The New Testament is to the Old Testament as the Aeneid is to the Iliad and the Odyssey: discuss.” My response wasn’t really a discussion of that, but it is a point I’ve been considering for some time.

The analogy I’m fond of isn’t to the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid, it’s to Graeco-Roman mythology generally. It’s a common assessment whenever ancient mythology is mentioned that Roman mythology is essentially just Greek mythology with the names changed.

My reaction to that is always to point out that that’s equivalent to saying Christianity is really just Judaism, because the Christian Bible comprises mostly the Hebrew Bible, with a short additional section attached at the end. Both analyses are built on valid propositions, but they ignore the facts that in both cases, it’s within the differences that we find those parts of Christianity and of Roman religion that are most relevant to understanding Christian and Roman identity (and society and history).

We need first and foremost to acknowledge the difference between mythology and religion. It’s perfectly valid to say Roman mythology is essentially Greek mythology with the names changed, so long as that’s immediately followed by Of course, mythology was far less relevant to Roman religious worship than Judeo-Christian mythology is to Judeo-Christian worship.

But I don’t think people are keeping that in mind when they compare Greek and Roman mythology; rather the contrary, I think most people nowadays have some vague notion that mythology is pretty much all there is to Graeco-Roman religion, because it’s all we ever learn about in school. There’s two reasons why our view of ancient religion is tilted so lopsidedly toward mythology.

The first is that knowledge of mythology is more accessible to us than knowledge of other segments of religious practice, because it gets written down, and then gets copied in great quantity. When the apocalypse comes in 2012 or 1988 or whatever date we’re going to pick after 2012 comes and goes, I can guarantee that archaeologists trying to reconstruct our culture two thousand years later will be able to find a copy of the Bible, to transmit our mythology. Rosaries, or stained glass, or descriptions of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, or written records of sermons, or whatever other elements of Christian worship you want to name, will all be preserved in much smaller quantities, or not at all. (Classicists estimate that only about seven per cent of the written works of the ancient world have been preserved and rediscovered today.)

The second is straight-up chauvinism. Having a written religion–and a written civilisation generally–was a big part of what made the Greeks and Romans “civilised”, and therefore superior to the Gauls or Teutons or Celtiberians; until a few decades ago, there was a strong tendency both in academia and in popular culture to see only those societies classed as civilised as worthy of respect.

(To be fair, the Romans were just as guilty of this as modern classicists. The very reason we identify Greek and Roman mythologies so closely is because, when the Romans were first creating a literate, scholarly society for themselves around the time of the Punic Wars, they essentially grafted their own gods onto the Greek gods’ mythology and family tree to give themselves a veneer of respectability. Prior to that, Roman gods had been much more impersonal beings, essentially forces of nature–without human form or personality or mythology. The term for such a god is numinous; a good trick to see how deep-rooted the Roman cult of a god was, is to see how numinous it is–like Vesta or Bona Dea.)

I think it’s also important to point out that the Romans did not see their gods as discrete, unique characters in the same way that we generally do. When the Romans equated Mars with the Greek god Ares, and even when Roman generals in Greece sacrificed at temples of Ares before or after battle, it was on some significant level simply an identification of both gods with the idea of war, rather than a claim that they were the same individual. Julius Caesar tells us that the principal god of the Gauls is Mercury, with Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva beneath him, but he doesn’t mean that the gods worship those exact same Roman gods–rather, he means that the Gauls worship their god of commerce and ingenuity as their principal god, supported by the gods of war, the sky, and protection from disease, and the goddess of urban settlement.

Now, I find all this fascinating just in its own right, but even beyond that, it also gives rise to a lesson I consider very important in my writing–highlighting how different societies see the world. (It’s a lesson I’ve mentioned before and will almost certainly mention again.)

I’ve spent most of this space talking about what Roman religious practice wasn’t, and of course the obvious question that gives rise to is asking what it was. I won’t go into that now, beyond touching on how legalistically the Romans viewed their interactions with their gods. It’s fundamentally different, I think, from the relationship that the Abrahamic religions have with the divine. And as writers, whether we’re recreating authentic foreign societies in works set in the real world, or creating our own in speculative fiction, I think it’s vitally important to understand how differently people can approach matters that are so ingrained in us that it’s often really hard for us to see past our own assumptions.


Words last two days: 1020
Words total: 28,488

Time spent writing: 1pm-5pm; 6pm-7pm
Reason for stopping: Took the kids for a walk; quota
Darling: I got up onto my knees and peeked out the curtains at the view outside, through the rivulets of rain running down the glass.
Words that boggled Word: pyjamas
New words today: rivulets, carbine, flinty

I don’t care how many times you’ve seen this, it is ALWAYS worth watching again

If you’re reading on Facebook or somewhere like that, please head over to the original post to see the embedded video.


The turnoff

A woman's tattooed torsoLast week, at Diane’s instigation I talked about my turn-ons, a post that was a fair deal of fun to write (and which left me with half a dozen photos of women dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms saved me to hard drive, from the search for a suitable image to adorn the post).

But that sort of discussion wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t also mention what’s probably my number one turnoff in a woman, at least in appearance: the tattoo.

The small tattoos–a flower on the inside of the wrist, or Celtic knot on the small of the back or around the ankle, are one thing. They’re still a turnoff, but they’re ignorable.

But now the tattoos are getting bigger. One day when Boy and I went swimming, there were three attractive women under thirty at the pool. This in itself, considering that they were all there separately, is rather unusual; Boy and I go swimming on weekday mornings, so as often as not we’re alone there with the lifeguard.

And every one of them had massive tattoos across their body, like the one in the picture at the top of this post.* One over her arms, another across the bottom half of her back, and the third across her back and thighs. And it killed it for me.

Now, I’m not sitting in judgement over tattoos, and I’m not criticising any readers who might have them, so I hope they don’t take it as such. I just … don’t like them. To me, I see the female form as a beautiful, pure thing.** And a tattoo mars that purity–permanently.

Anyone else have a turnoff like that, that just kills the moment for them?


*In the past couple of weeks Facebook seems to have stopped importing the images on my posts. I don’t know if this is Facebook or the RSS feed off the blog. At any rate, if you’re just really interested in seeming some picture of a girl’s torso with her pants pulled down and sports bra pulled up to expose her full tattoo, and you’re reading this without an image on it, head on over to the original post to see.

**Please no one think that because I’m bringing purity into the discussion, I’m referring at all to virginity. Virginity and physical purity are, as far as I’m concerned, unrelated, and it annoys me greatly when they get equated.


The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel KayVia aqeldroma, an excellent article by Guy Gavriel Kay about the implications of the much greater engagement with their readers that authors experience in the Internet age.

And since that gives me the opportunity, I’m going to plug Guy Gavriel Kay, who’s one of my all-time favourite authors. Kay is Canadian, and in the 1970s he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing the notes and papers that became The Silmarillion. His first four books, The Fionavar Tapestry, are a pretty straight Tolkien-esque fantasy cycle about a group of university students transported to another world.

But since then he’s moved away from the traditional sword-and-sorcery adventure model of fantasy to a style of storytelling that’s far more literary and character-focused; the worlds of his story have very little magic, but are steeped in culture and history. On occasion Kay can get a little too wrapped up in this notion of literary fantasy, and his work becomes a bit pretentious as a result (I’m looking at you, Lord of Emperors and The Last Light of the Sun); but far more often than that, his books are amongst the best fantasy the genre has ever produced, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I’d say the best entry point for a new reader would be A Song for Arbonne, a beautiful, melancholy novel about a gruff mercenary knight with a mysterious past and a travelling poetess, living in a society they both fear is doomed to an imminent end; its backdrop is a world inspired by the Albigensian Crusade in mediaeval France.

Another high point is The Lions of al-Rassan, set in a world heavily flavored by the Reconquista, the period of Spanish history when the Christian rump kingdoms in the north reconquered the peninsula from the Muslim kings who had ruled in the South for centuries. It follows a love triangle between the two greatest warriors of each side and the woman both men love, a healer from the Kindath, the outcast people despised by both of the peninsula’s societies.

Since then Kay has written several more books in the same world as Lions, but set hundreds of years away from that book and in farflung, distant lands–the Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) is set in a pseudo-Byzantium during the reign of Justinian, and The Last Light of the Sun looks at Britain in the time of Alfred the Great. Always the book’s settings and characters display a complexity and sophistication that belies all the cliches of which fantasy is so commonly guilty; their stories deal with the clash of religion, politics and ambition, and how those forces push and pull at the lives of human beings.

More often than not, they’re brilliant–they’re what fantasy should be.



Quality StreetSince she’s a Doctor Who fan, one of the things ambobuddha did when she arrived in London was check out jelly babies. She didn’t particularly care for them, which I hardly begrudge her–jelly babies look superficially like gummi bears but have a rather grainier, crumblier texture to them when you bite into them, so I can see how someone raised on American foodstuffs wouldn’t really care for them. She added, however, that one of the problems with jelly babies is that they have a blackcurrant flavour, prompting the following response from me:

If I could change one thing about America, it would be to have blackcurrant more freely available. Every once in a while I break down and spend eight freakin’ bucks on a one-litre bottle of Vimto or Ribena.

Well, I’d change American food in general. I’d add blackcurrant, I’d fix the chocolate, I’d turn those things marketed as “sausage” or “bacon” into actual sausages and bacon… It’s really the only difference between England and America where I remain adamant that the English way is just plain better.

Except for barbeque. I do like barbeque.

A couple of months ago I came across a carton of Quality Street chocolates at our local sweets shop. Despite my excitement, I almost didn’t get them, because at $18 they were priced exorbitantly. I’ve had to get used to holding myself back from those sorts of purchases ever since I discovered those eight-dollar litres of Ribena at Giant.* But in this instance I went ahead and made the buy.

There’s only one or two pieces of Quality Street I don’t like, both in green wrappers, so when I came across a green triangle I passed it to Lisa, with a word of warning that as far as I was concerned it wasn’t very tasty. She unwrapped it and took a bite, and instantly her eyes got big and wide.

“Oh my god,” she said, “this is so good!”

And then there’s sausage roll. My mother once made what might be considered the mistake of serving her sausage roll to Lisa’s family, and now she has to bring it to any party at Lisa’s parents’ or Lisa’s sister’s.

Ordinarily I would have simply made my response to Megan’s post and moved on, but what decided me on turning this into a full post of my own isn’t that I find British food to be almost universally superior to American food because, honestly, that’s just a cultural difference, and I’m quite well aware that it would work in the opposite direction–that should we move to London Lisa would soon start writing blog posts about how much she prefers gummi bears to jelly babies or Snickers bars to Mars bars or how much she misses grits or sausage links (or sausage patties) or Chick-fil-A sandwiches or how she can no longer order pancakes or lasagna or pizza in a restaurant because it’s not going to be actually pancakes or lasagna or pizza that comes out.

Rather, what makes me turn this into a proper post is how exceptionally ingrained it seems to be for Americans something strikingly opposite is true–that American food is delicious and that there might not actually be an edible foodstuff anywhere in the whole of Great Britain. It’s a notion so taken for granted that it’s not uncommon for people who are otherwise friendly, sensible and open-minded to bring up in conversation some snide remark about food in Britain and then smile, waiting for me to express some sort of approval at their wit or humour. And it’s so taken for granted that any notion of contradicting it is met with blank stares and incomprehension–I can’t respond, “Actually, I’d much rather have British food than American,” because it’s a conversation killer; people simply cannot find a way to react to it.

And, having now made that point, I find that it is indeed a conversation killer once again, as I don’t really have anything further to move on to. So I guess I’ll close, simply, by asking Americans just that they give mushy peas a chance.


PS You know, my intent was something lighthearted about how funny it is that so many Americans seem to think British food isn’t any good, but now I’m vaguely wondering if it didn’t end up turning into a vaguely crankish diatribe against American stupidity for thinking British food isn’t any good (though that might just be an impression created by some of the additional paragraphs I wrote then deleted). Ah well; if that was the effect I achieved, rest assured it wasn’t my intent. I really do like barbeque. It’s been one of the best things about moving back south of the Potomac.

*Giant also sells Robinson’s cheaply enough to be reasonable, but Robinson’s mixes its blackcurrant flavour with apple and frankly isn’t very good.

Circles within circles

Earth under a magnifying glassGeneral disclaimer: I’m not a scientific expert and no reportage of fact I make should be repeated with authority.

There was a time when it was our understanding* that all the bodies we see in the sky–Moon, sun, planets, stars et cetera–orbited around the Earth. And if the Earth lay at the centre of the universe, it should have been a fairly simple thing to predict the orbits of all those celestial bodies making their way around and around us–indeed, it shouldn’t have been a matter of predicting the orbits so much as simple recording them and then watching each body repeat its orbit around us over and over again for evermore. So that’s exactly what they did–they took their star charts and drew a single arcing line to mark the path of each planet and comet across the sky.

Except, of course, that the next time each of these objects passed over us, they didn’t follow the same path they had last time, but rather, a subtly different one. This was very puzzling, and attempts were made to fit this observation into our preconceived notion of the Earth at the centre of the universe. A hypothesis was proposed–that these celestial bodies have “sub-orbits”, called epicycles, within their orbits; and so the orbital charts were redrawn, with smaller circles along the path of the larger, main arc.

Except of course that the next time the planets went by, they didn’t match either their initial orbits or their epicyclic orbits. And so even smaller epicycles were added to the original epicycles; and on their next pass, even smaller epicycles were added to those, until the sky charts began to look more and more like they’d been drawn with a Spirograph.

And then one day, someone–someone whose mind intuitively grasped the basic concept of science, that we make our hypotheses fit our observations, not the other way round–took a look at all these recorded orbits and said, “Well, what if they’re not orbiting the Earth? What if they’re orbiting the Sun–and so are we?” And suddenly it all fell into place–all those orbits made sense, because our observations matched perfectly with the idea of these planets following their orbits around the Sun, with each orbit looking slightly different to us only because of the differing relative positions of Earth and the other planets as we passed each other along our orbits.

When people complain about the scientific fantasy of things like warp drive in Star Trek or time travel and dimensional transcendance in Doctor Who, I laugh. In four hundred years (in the case of Star Trek) our understanding of all areas of science will have changed in ways we literally cannot even imagine, just like no human being in 1608 could have any idea of what we understand right now about, say, atomic structure or Bernouli’s principle or the internal combustion engine or the microchip; next to a society that’s lasted for millions of years (in the case of Doctor Who) we look like nematodes, and I don’t think that in that case it’s a matter of us not being able to guess what sort of scientific understanding they’d have so much as it’s a matter of us not being able to fathom even the smallest part of their understanding of the nature of existence itself.

Some of that new scientific understanding will come from straightforward progression in what we already understand. Some of it will see areas we thought we had pretty much sussed suddenly turn out to be much more complicated than we’d imagined, the way we nowadays have everything from M-theory to dark energy to explain why our observations of the universe don’t match up with how what we thought were the four universal forces should act upon it.

And some of it will come from someone looking at something we thought was incredibly complicated and as yet beyond our full understanding, and asking a question that suddenly makes it all fall into place, just like asking, “What if we’re all orbiting the Sun?

My bet for that last one is on the periodic table of elements. Seven rows and eighteen columns, and each row and each column has a very specific set of rules for all the elements it contains. So each element–representing a unique intersection between one row and one column–should have very predictable properties, right? Except, as anyone who’s passed a high school chemistry class in their life knows quite well, that’s bunkum. In each row of eighteen, or in each column of seven, you’ll probably find, on average, about one and a half elements following any given rule for that row or column. You almost wonder if whoever first came up with the periodic table had any familiarity at all with any of the elements.

This isn’t an irrelevance–it isn’t just that we happen to have chosen a nonsensical way to tabulate the elements. We (think we) understand the basic nature of the elements, constructed of the three basic subatomic particles–protons, neutrons and electrons. We understand that (all things being equal) you get one proton for every one electron,** we understand that electrons arrange themselves around the atomic nucleus in shells, with each shell being able to accomodate a specific number of electrons (two on the first shell, eight each on the next two, and eighteen on subsequent shells)**, and we understand that the best predictor of an element’s properties is how many proton-electron pairs it has.** An element’s row represents how many shells its electrons fill, and its column represents how full its top shell is, so the periodic table is essentially a picture of each element.*** So it’s very troubling that basically eighty per cent of what the periodic table predicts should be true simply isn’t.

But one day, somebody’s going to come along and posit a simple observation. It probably won’t be quite as simple as asking, “Well, what if we assume we’re all orbiting the Sun instead?” but to scientists who understand it, it’ll seem that simple. And we’ll all pause for a moment and look at the data, and we’ll say, “Whoa.”


*It’s of course much more complicated than saying, “We used to think the Earth was the centre of the universe, but now we know different,” and it’s also more complicated than, “The Greeks knew the Earth orbited the sun, but then we lost that knowledge during the Middle Ages, but then we rediscovered it.”

**To oversimplify.

***To illustrate our understanding of the periodic table: I asked Lisa–who has a chemistry degree–while writing this post, “My recollection is correct that an element’s row represents how many shells its electrons fill, right?” Her response? “The short answer is yes. The long answer is God, no!”

Does your granny always tell ya the old songs are the best?

Even after more than twenty years in the States, every once in a while I still run across things that are perfectly everyday to me, and I’m surprised to learn that they’re not a part of American culture, but in fact are uniquely British.* For instance, it’s only recently that I’ve realised that much of the glam rock movement of the 1970s never penetrated American awareness. Much of it did penetrate, of course–Bowie and Elton John and Queen–which may have been the source of my confusion. But those three examples really highlight how glam rock as a whole seems never really to have made it to these shores, since they all established themselves in America on their own two feet, so to speak, as general rock and roll acts, and I doubt many Americans would group them together into any single genre more specific than “pop” (or maybe “British” or “seventies”).

But most Americans, I think, would have no idea who, say, T-Rex is, though they’d probably recognise “Get It On” if you played it for them. And I think you’d have to look long and hard to find anyone who’s ever heard of Gary Glitter, despite the fact that “Rock and Roll Part Two” (the “Hey!” song) plays at pretty much every professional sporting event in the United States.

Which is a roundabout way of bringing me to my question. Slade is definitely one of those groups that never really made any impression in the USA,** but I’d always assumed “Merry Xmas Everybody” was nevertheless a song Americans were familiar with. Certainly it doesn’t have the iconic status over here it has Britain, but I guess I always figured it was still one of those Christmas pop songs we all recognise as soon as the first few bars play on the radio in December, like “Wonderful Christmas Time” or “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” After all, I still hear it every Christmas–but then again, I hear it on the Doctor Who Christmas special, where it makes an annual appearance.

So, question to the Americans–is “Merry Xmas Everybody” a Christmas song that Americans are familiar with, or not?

Happy holidays to all.


*Uniquely British in this instance meaning present in British culture but not in American, and not to be taken in any way as implying unique to Britain and not present in other cultures, such as mainland Europe, Australia, Canada or anywhere else.

**Most Americans, of course, would recognise the Slade song “Cum On Feel the Noize”, but it’s the Quiet Riot cover of the song that’s heard in the States, not the original.


The other day I received an email forward claiming that the US Mint’s new series of presidential dollar coins do not include the words “In God We Trust”. I’ve already deleted the email, so I can’t quote the exact one I received. Instead, I’ll quote one of the samples reproduced on Snopes’s page debunking this dishonest rumour; the version I received had several sentences taken word for word from this one, particularly the one I’m going to talk about:

You guessed it

Who originally put ‘In God We Trust’ onto our currency?

My bet is that it was one of the Presidents on these coins.

All our U.S. Government has done is Dishonor them, and disgust me!!!

If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!!


Together we can force them out of circulation.

(Just as a note: anyone who places a bet on a President being the one who first place “In God We Trust” on US currency would lose that bet. As about ten seconds of Googling can reveal. Of course, that’s about the same amount of time it takes to establish that these presidential dollars do include the phrase.)

Now, there’s a lot here that I could talk about how angry it makes me, and there’s a lot I could talk about how sad it makes me. I could talk about the whole undercurrent of “Anything that doesn’t make non-Christians feel like alienated second-class Americans counts as actively persecuting Christians!” that runs through so many of these fallacious email forward campaigns. It’s an undercurrent that would be laughable if so many people didn’t find it so powerful and invigorating that massive (and successful) consumer campaigns have been organised in its name.

I could talk about how the people who exploit that sentiment through emails like this are clearly doing it dishonestly, just to manipulate these people–the particular version of the email I receive had a story prepended about how the author had received one of the coins as change at the post office and refused to accept it, and the postal worker had expressed pride in that decision. So either the author knew they were lying about “In God We Trust” not appearing on the coin, because they had handled it and therefore must have seen it, or they were lying about the entire story of having received it as change. Either way, they were definitely lying about the postal worker’s reaction.

I could talk about how futile it feels when I hit Reply All and detail all the ways emails like this are false, not because people are going to think that my facts are suspect, but because I firmly believe that for most people who believe nonsense like this, whether or not it’s true simply has no relevance to them. These people believe these things because they want to believe them–because for whatever reason, they want it to be true that Big Evil Secularists have removed “In God We Trust” from the currency, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that Proctor and Gamble donate a portion of all their profits to the Church of Satan, that f*ck is an acronym of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, that Beaver Cleaver died in Vietnam, that gangs initiate new members by driving around at night with their lights off and chasing down and murdering anyone who flashes their high beams at them, that one of the World Trade Center bombers dated an American girl the summer before the attack and told her just before he broke contact with her that she shouldn’t go to the World Trade Center on 11 September or to any shopping malls on Hallowe’en, no matter how stupid all of those are when given even a moment’s serious scrutiny.

But the one line that jumped out at me more than any other from that email was, “If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!”

Really? I mean, really?

Walmart actively destroys the quality of life of millions of employees, both their own direct employees and the employees of their suppliers around the globe. Yahoo provides personal information to the People’s Republic of China so that the Chinese authorities can hunt down and imprison any of their citizens who commit the crime of expressing dissatisfaction with their country’s political situation. For that matter, China itself–the source of a huge and growing proportion of the products you and I buy every day, particularly of children’s toys, often manufactured in inhuman conditions and sold through Walmart–maintains a system where over a billion people are deprived of basic civil and human rights that you and I take for granted.

But the only unquestionably legitimate reason for a boycott the author of this email has ever encountered is whether or not four words that were only adopted as the National Motto in an anti-Soviet PR stunt in the 1950s appear on a series of limited-edition coins? Whose only material effect is to make sure that atheist or polytheistic American citizens are reminded that our country considers us inherently inferior to the monotheistic majority?

Allow me to attempt to rewrite the sentence in question so I can get closer to the original author’s real meaning:

If ever there was a boycott that will allow us to feel smugly superior without any effort, sacrifice or inconvenience to ourselves, THIS IS IT!!!

Which is what disgusts me as much as anything else about the sentiments in dishonest emails like this–this sentiment that we’ll make loud, obnoxious noises at anything we don’t like, so long as it doesn’t cause us a hassle in any way. It’s like the people who get up in arms every year about demanding retail employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” (again, purely with the aim of ensuring that non-Christians know that they can never be as good as Christians), which–I can tell you from experience–never seems to involve actually forgoing the purchase of whatever they were going to buy, just self-righteously haranguing the hapless customer service employee.

Truly trying to make the world a better place means sticking to your convictions even when–perhaps especially when–it makes our lives harder. As I noted above, whenever I get one of those email forwards–at least, one of the genuinely harmful ones, like Barack Obama being a Muslim or Starbucks refusing to donate products to soldiers in Iraq in an effort to undermine the war effort or the Supreme Court having a monument to the Ten Commandments at its entrance to confirm that American law is supposed to be based on Biblical law (all of which, funnily enough, always seem designed to get me to vote Republican)–I hit Reply All and debunk it. This isn’t easy for me; I’m profoundly uncomfortable making a fool of myself in front of people I don’t know (people I do know are often disbelieving when I say this, since I have absolutely no problem making a fool of myself when I know everyone in the room), and I know that when I send that reply I’m going to look like a total crank to dozens of strangers, very few of whom will even be willing to believe that truth that contradicts the urban legend they’d much prefer. But I realised that I couldn’t think of myself as the person I’d like to be if I was willing to let lies like that be spread right in front of me and not speak up.

Lisa and I don’t shop at Walmart. We decided that we simply couldn’t collude with Walmart’s business practices–either their censorship of artists’ work because they disagree with that art, or because of the horrible conditions under which their employees at all levels of distribution, all around the world, have to suffer–by spending our money in their stores. And sometimes that really sucks. It’s more expensive and it’s less convenient (and as a single-income household, which option is the cheapest is one of the two or three biggest factors in most purchases we make), and it especially has the opportunity for awkwardness when we visit her family in Florida or South Carolina, most of whom swear by Walmart.

Please don’t think I’m trying to hold myself up as some sort of shining example here, because I’m not. I’ll be the first to admit that there are other sacrifices we could make that we don’t. And we’re hardly perfect with the resolutions we do make; the avoid-conflict-at-all-costs ethos that runs through Lisa’s family means that in particular it’s not uncommon for us to end up at Walmart on a trip to South Carolina or Florida rather than get into an argument over what’s so objectionable about shopping there.

But my point here isn’t to turn people into ascetics in pursuit of living morally perfect lives. It’s just that there seem to be so many campaigns or events designed to salve people’s consciences about the causes they care about. I don’t object to such things because I don’t think they make enough of an impact; I object to them because I think they actively work against making an impact, by allowing people to pretend they’ve made a contribution without actually doing anything that might make an impact.

Like participating in Earth Hour: I’ve yet to encounter anyone who used their participation in Earth Hour as a springboard to actually live their life in a greener way, by no longer leaving their computer on all night long, or by choosing to own less than one car per licensed driver in the household.

Similarly, there was a movement on Facebook to have people set their status to “is gay” for National Coming Out Day last week. Laudable. But of the tens of thousands of people who participated, how many have made even a twenty dollar donation to organisations fighting against Proposition 8 in California or Amendment 2 in Florida? Doing so actually would make a contribution towards making our world a better place; what sort of impact did claiming to be gay on Facebook for a single day make?

Or blogging. I’ve blogged about how disgraceful the treatment people feel entitled to mete out to customer service employees in America is–but is there really anyone who’s started treating other human beings more civilly regardless of whether or not they wear a nametag because of what I’ve written?

If you want to do Earth Hour, or announce to the Facebook community that you’re gay for a day, or blog about what you care, great. I mean it–great. Stand up for what you believe in. But use stuff like that as a step towards actually making a difference.


Words today: 1059
Words total: 67,695

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1.30-3pm)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Tyop: The flat sandstone roofstops of the necropolis stretched away from them
New words used today: juddering, cinderblock
Alcohol: Amaretto fower
Milestone reached: Three quarters done!

Most Intelligent by popular acclaim, class of 1998

A recurrent theme at my high school reunion was that I got called smart. I got called smart a lot. Then how smart I was came up in conversation at lunch with Katie a couple of days later. I guess the ruefulness I felt about that must have shown a bit more than I intended, because Katie asked if it bothered me.

“Well,” I said, “I doubt anyone really wants to be reminded too much about their reputation from high school.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of being smart. And I wasn’t ashamed of being smart in high school. I mean, I’m sure I don’t have to explain what parts of being the smartest kid in the class can suck sometimes, but I was pretty comfortable that the benefits generally outweighed the drawbacks.

But last week, whenever someone would open a conversation with, “Hey, Ian, how are you doing? Man, you were always so smart!” I would think, “Gee, really, is this what we have to talk about?”

I’ve been thinking about that the past few days, and why it bothered me. It’s not like I’m not smart anymore, or that I’m no longer proud of my intelligence–one of the best compliments I’ve ever received was when Janell told a group of people that you have to talk to me for just a few minutes before you start questioning whether or not you are, in fact, far dumber than you had previously thought.

But what bothered me at the reunion was that in high school, “smart” is all that I was.

Think about how you describe yourself nowadays, if, say, you’re at some sort of event where you don’t know anyone. You might give your occupation, or where you’re from, or your family status. I’m Ian, and I’m a stay-at-home dad, and I used to be a bookseller, and I’m from (depending on context) Florida or England.

But the thing about all those things is that they describe my history and my present situation, but they don’t tell you anything about who I am. They don’t tell you anything that will guide you as to whether or not I’m the sort of person you’d enjoy hanging out with. (Or if they do, you’re a rather bigoted person.)

I think that phrase I used–depending on context–is also significant. We only define ourselves by, say, our profession if we’re at a nonprofessional gathering–a doctor wouldn’t say, “I’m a doctor” if he was at a medical conference with a thousand other doctors. I don’t say, “Hi, I’m a stay-at-home dad,” when I’m meeting other parents at the park. I only talk about being from Florida when I’m not in Florida, and I’m only English when I’m amongst Americans.

By contrast, in high school we’re defined not by the circumstances of our life, but by our image–you’re smart, or you’re pretty,* or you’re a jock, or you’re in band (by which I mean, you’re straight-out weird). This is bad in a couple of related ways.

First, it defines who you are by a behaviour, which means that you’re constantly under pressure to live up to it. Anytime a question of an academic nature was asked in high school, I had to know the answer, because if I didn’t, I’d catch flak for it.

And second, if your reputation is based on something you don’t like about yourself, it makes it impossible to change. If I decide I want to lose weight or feel like changing how I dress from goth to preppy, I can do that without everyone I know having their mental label for me of “stay-at-home dad” challenged. But it does challenge the labels that high school students have for each other, and people react badly when their labels are challenged.

All this, I think, leads to people not just to being forced into categories, but in many cases to becoming something of a caricature of those categories. Which is why, even though I know everyone meant it only as a positive (some might not have necessarily meant it as such a positive ten or twelve years ago, but that’s how they mean it now), I got a little uncomfortable when everyone wanted to talk about how smart I was.


*Katie informs me that Sophia got rather good-naturedly annoyed when everyone kept addressing her as “Best Looking” at the Friday night reunion event.

Words today: 1045
Words total: 64,541

Time spent writing: Three hours (1pm-3pm, 11.30-12.30)
Reason for stopping: Boy got up; quota, end of chapter
Alcohol: Given the temperature outside, I opted for tea, fortified with butterscotch schnapps. This was pretty good, but had the unfortunate effect of using up the last of the butterscotch schnapps, so for the second cuppa I used Bacardi Select. This turned out to require the addition of a lot of sugar, but once the sugar had been added, it was essentially like drinking raisin-flavored tea.

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