Miracles of Modern Science

Portrait of Pluto and Charon.

Portrait of Pluto and Charon.

I know for a moment I’ll come off as one of those people who says things like “kids today!” but just stick with me here, because I’m not stomping over other people’s perceived shortcomings.

Two days ago, I got to sit at my computer and watch a computer simulation (via NASA’s Eyes, an app built and freely offered) of New Horizons making its closest pass to Pluto on its way to the Kuiper Belt. I just want to unpack that, okay? I sat at my computer, which happens to be a very very very long way from California and from the places where I grew up and from the people I grew up with. But I had the simulation running in real time, and on a browser tab I had a NASA TV stream running.

Back when I was in high school, we lived near Charleston, which is much nearer to Cape Canaveral than where I am now. And one of our neighbors said “hey, if you know where to look, you can see the shuttle launch!”

So I checked on a compass to see which way was southish, and compared my instinct with an old map. Because NO INTERNET, right? And as I listened to the countdown on the TV in the other room, I looked for and found that elegant candle flame rising up into the sky. I’ve seen a shuttle launch.

I grew up in a time where I used a card catalogue to write my term papers. Now I can just pull PDFs from my university’s online library.

This isn’t some cri de coeur about how easy kids have it today — this is a moment of reflection to let myself be amazed and full of wonder at the seriously amazing stuff that happens today, nearly as a matter of course. There’s so much going on to not be happy about, and to be very angry about, and disillusioned and disappointed, if not outright betrayed. That’s why I think it’s vital to take these moments to realize I can chat with friends across the globe with a mic headset and a computer, and I can celebrate with the people at JPL in real time the amazing milestones they reach.

Pluto has mountains made of water ice. It is geologically active. I can’t be alone in thinking how OMG COOL this is, can I? I can’t. Two weeks ago the best image we had of Pluto was a pixellated blob. Now we have this, and it’s only going to get better as the data streams a boggling distance toward Earth and we start parsing it all out.

nh-plutosurface

The Icy Mountains of Pluto.

A sense of place

I have always been absorbed by context, whether it’s historical or political or environmental. Really, these things are inseparable, and they weave into my own history an out of it like tendrils on creeper vines. Of the world, and in it.

I had asked whether the brutal monolith apartment blocks that lined the avenue between the airport and the heart of the old city were attributable to him.

I moved around a lot as a kid, every two or three years or so. Place became something meaningful, not just a location but a collection of sensations and impressions and people and their lives in that place, too. The texture of the earth underfoot or the smell of exhaust over petrichor is enough to take me back to places I haven’t been in years. The sound of crickets, the fall of light on a late winter day, a spark of unexpected coriander in an otherwise ordinary salad.

 I knew the scenes in my head were only partly authored by my own imagination. I arrived sceptical of my own expectations.

All of these shape experience, and all of these become the coral skeletons of the reefs of memories.

Through all those mundane exchanges, perfectly pleasant and polite, I knew I was stepping into a history whose depths I couldn’t hope to fathom.

I was recently asked to share impressions like these on The Writers Bloc, an online community for writers and those interested in the craft of writing. I wrote about Cluj-Napoca, a city in western Romania, and at one time the capital of Transylvania. I was only there a few days, but it left an impression on me. Please take a look.

Seeing what we sometimes can’t

There’s tons of bad news out in the ether. I can’t deal with it now, I don’t have the wherewithal, but I wanted to do something constructive. So I wanetd to talk about looking at the things you do and letting yourself see the good in it.

Western society — or at least this corner of Western society that I live in — thrives on hypercriticality. Things aren’t quite good enough. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and I will never be attractive enough or thin enough or charming enough on my own, so I really really need to buy a panoply of things to cover my hopeless flaws. Maybe it’s not. Anyway.

I was sitting around with friends yesterday and recounted a summary of a story I’d submitted in the hopes of getting it published and I thought at first I wouldn’t remember it properly. (Memory and I don’t get along very well, usually.) But I did, because while I fumbled for some of the particulars of the plot, I remembered the theme, and I really remembered the characters because they hooked into some of the anguish I’d been feeling and seeing when I wrote the story.

And here’s the thing: with my friends there, listening, the sock-puppet of doubt was afraid to come out.

I’m usually plagued by the little bastard, a constant background hiss of internal disapproval. I’ll be at sword practice and I’ll be screwing up (we’re supposed to screw up, we’re learning, that’s how you learn), or I’ll be writing something and I can feel it folding under its own weight of improbability, of disconnections and internal inconsistencies. But seeing my friends listening to what I was saying, engaging and not doing the dismissing thing that the sock puppet insists everyone does when I’m around, well, evidence left him on the back foot.

Heh. Foot. Sock. –Anyway.

As I explained the story, I realized a few things. One, I have a thing for trees. Two, I have a thing for generosity. Three, I don’t believe people are set to selfish-jerk by default. I can take a bit of grimdark, I can take a bit of gritty realism, but there comes a point where I get sick of it; it’s an off-key drone that doesn’t set the stage so much as grate against the ear and trigger a bit of nausea. And I used to think I had to have it, because otherwise the things I wrote wouldn’t be “realistic” enough; they’d be too perfect, too happy.

Hell with that. We have our hard times, and we have our good times. And people will be generous often because they feel like it, or maybe they’re interested in something that’s tangential to the results of the generosity. I get taken advantage of, this is true; but I think I’d prefer to be open and take my hits than just shut down, close off. It sounds like a slow spiritual starvation, and I’m not interested.

So the upshot of this conversation yesterday was that I noticed I keep returning to these things, as wrong as they might be (and I don’t think they are): that as many people are decent as they are cads, and that generosity isn’t something that marks you as naive, or as a rube. I like exploring that; I like meeting characters that lean toward that, as wounded as they might be, as overoptimistic as they might be. Sometimes strength is refusing to acquiesce. You don’t have to be nice, but you do have to be kind.

Since I have a thing for trees, I’ll leave you with one here:

Maples in Japan.

Maples in Japan.

I should be asleep right now.

I should, I really should. I started a new job at the beginning of the month, a full time one — no more 4-day weekends for me — as a full editor. Bilingual, no less.

I am astonished, saddened, and shocked at how out of practice I am with it. I mean, a lot of it’s muscle memory, neural pathways burned like screens left on too long. You put words in front of me, I fix them! Or I try. Usually I’m pretty good.

But it’s been a while since I’ve done this for pay, for several hours straight, in a facility dedicated to this purpose with equipment that is not mine to do it on.

I love it.

But my brain isn’t used to this kind of thing. Again, like a muscle, it’s out of practice, it’s gone soft from under-use (even with working on the doctoral research). And that scares me. It worries me. I try to to think too hard about it, but I wonder if it’s just a matter of getting older, or if it’s because I’ve experienced more and I know more and I can feel the difference with better granularity when things aren’t up to par, up to speed.

It also means that my mind takes longer to slow down. It shouldn’t be that way, again because of the research. I read academic journals fairly often, and that’s not light material. But the kind of turning over that happens from that is distinctly different from what happens when I spend a day checking for errors and massaging the muddiness and awkwardness from language. Maybe it’s because there’s a kind of nimbleness required in tackling academic thinking, even though there’s a lot of persistence required, too. With editorial thinking, my mind feels more like a heavy train on a track that takes a while to slow down.

The upshot of this, then, is that editorial thinking so far hasn’t burned me out on academic thinking. I was a little concerned that might happen but the movement and interaction of ideas is functionally different.

Anyway. I dropped this here in the hopes that it would shed weight from the cars, let the rail brakes do their job better, because tomorrow is another packed day at work and I definitely need the rest.

Good night.

Leave it to Zombies: Aberford

So anyone who knows me knows I have Opinions about Representation. Representation in anything — games, movies, books, the gamut of communicative arts. So let me tell you about this thing that I just found because YES.

It’s a game called Aberford in development by an outfit called Sketchy Panda Games. Here are their four primary protagonists:

Clockwise, from top left: Peggy Whitman, Betty Smith, Doris Baker, Sylvia Hornberger

Clockwise, from top left: Peggy Whitman, Betty Smith, Sylvia Hornberger, Doris Baker. Oh, and Disney? Note how different their faces are. 

Yeah. That totally got my attention. In a sentence, Aberford follows four women in post-WWII America faced with a zombie apocalypse. There’s a single-player story mode and a multiplayer zombie-smash mode, too. But if you worry that this is being handled poorly, that the characters are cardboard cutouts and the story will be a thin veneer of zombie bashing dressed in June Cleaver’s best, let me point you to this excerpt from their tumblr, which they update quite frequently:

Besides being a game about 50’s housewives and zombies, Aberford is about people finding their voices and testing their true inner strength. So to do that, the story pushes these women to their physical and emotional limits in one brutal, terrible day.

Lots of modern zombie stories skip over the immediate fallout in a hurry to get to the cool “post-apocalyptic” world, but I think the real test of survival comes right at the start. The first time [you] to have to bash in human being’s head to keep it from killing you. The first time you have to leave a loved one’s mangled body behind. The moment you have to accept that this is what you’re doing today and not anything you had planned. These are the little moments where we see who we are, and that’s what Aberford focuses on.

It’s well worth the time to dig through the archive; people ask some really good questions — technical and philosophical — and the folks at Sketchy Panda answer candidly and honestly. From one of my favorite exchanges:

allgreymatters: I appreciate that there’s a woman of color and a larger woman included in the main character designs.

sketchypandagames: We felt you’d appreciate having someone other than Angry White Man or generic woman in a catsuit to play as. We also have a trans woman, a Japanese American woman, a Latina woman, and a teenage girl coming as expansion characters (They play roles in the main story and will be available in the free play mode. We’ll also make playable side campaigns for them if we fund enough. Hopefully I’ll have something I’m willing to show you art-wise soon). [Emphasis mine.]

If you go to their website (not the tumblr), you can drop them your e-mail address so they’ll notify you when their Kickstarter launches. I know I already have.

Ambient noise generator

This is the most fantastic thing I’ve seen in a while: A Soft Murmur, which lets you mix your own background ambient noise loop.

Mix your own background ambient loop. BRILLIANT.

Mix your own background ambient loop. BRILLIANT.

I don’t know how long it’s been out, but it’s fantastic. There’s no hiccup where a track loops back on itself, and you can have all of the sliders up and running if you like and it doesn’t slow anything down, nor does the sound stutter. And you can set it up with timers — a timer to start, a timer to end, and a timer to just gently fade out. They’ve got an Android app, but no iPhone yet.

You can even share your own mix. Mine is rain, thunder, and waves, with a little wind and a hint of singing bowl thrown in. I’m absolutely in love.

 

Pushing pieces of metal around

There is a fierce joy in being sore. I’m one of those people who doesn’t really respond to cardio; I’d rather chew glass than walk thirty minutes on a treadmill. But I love pushing pieces of metal around.

USMC-100825-M-4396L-005

The idea of bulking up never bothered me. I want to look badass! I want to be badass! My life has been, more or less, an extended attempt to attain and maintain some kind of dignity, which I never think I have. Stupidly Sisyphean. But we all have our quirks, I suppose.

So anyway, I love pushing weights around. I love feeling the steering in my car get softer — it’s an old car, with a carburetor and “assisted” steering, a term describing something that is almost, but not entirely unlike, power steering; I love feeling how stable I am getting up the stairs after apparently years of screwed up posture leg musculature out of whack.

Note how there’s no talk of weight, specifically my own, specifically losing it.

Well, I’m kind of done with it, when I’m staring it in the face. It won’t go away for any real length of time, and while there’s benefit in eating well, there’s no benefit in never approaching closer than five paces from a cake the rest of my life. Does that mean I won’t go into a misery spiral when I have to (God help me) go shopping for clothes and can’t find anything that doesn’t look warped in some awful way, even if it’s big enough to “fit”? Heck no. Society is a constant pressure, and I’m no Atlas. The water presses in through the leaks sometime.

And it hurts for a while, but it eventually stops, and I move on, though I know it’ll be back around again. But in the meantime, I take my lumps, and I keep leg pressing twice my weight, and start learning how to do Olympic style lifts. Because there’s a satisfaction in feeling sore, and I like pushing pieces of metal around.

Today is a hollow day.

There are days I feel like I’m striving toward something, striding. Something purposeful, something meaningful. Today is not one of those days.

I suppose it’s all right; I suppose you can’t always be on the march, you can’t always double-time through the shadows with a burning brand smoking up the corridors. But it leaves me hollow and empty and with no motion at all.

I don’t like being motionless. Well, that’s not entirely correct; I like being motionless when it’s a thing I’ve chosen, and serves a purpose. Or even if I didn’t choose it, but I know it leads to something else later on. An enforced sabbatical.

That’s not what this is, though. It’s a permeating fog of dissatisfaction, and I think that’s what I hate most. If something’s not quite right, I like to be able to try to fix it, or think about why leaving it alone is better in the long run. This is just dissociated and rootless agitation at an energy level that’s like the whine of a switched-on cathode ray tube.

Usually, when I hit this point, I find something to do that will cut through that fog. It can be as simple as talking to a friend, or having some ice cream, but I get the sense that this is more closely tied to creative output. Somehow, my actual output and my desired output are not in synch.

Well, okay, they’re never in synch, but there’s a dissonance here that’s more acute and less common than the usual. What’s happening now is a spring-loaded slapdown whenever I sort of think of something I’d like to build or write or map out. I’m in no way at a loss for projects; this has more to do with the squelching of ideas than lack of work.

I spoke before of telling stories as armor. Maybe there’s something in that that I should look more deeply into — a projection of idealized self. Maybe I don’t know what I want to be anymore, or, more worryingly, I feel like I can’t ever live up to the ideal so there’s no point.

Well, regardless, this bit of drabble has made me feel better, and I suppose that’s sort of the point.

Get to the point

DoYouCareCraftivistCollective

You know the person who, when telling you about some achingly mundane event in their lives, turns it into a sort of narrative epic of questionable insight and imagined valor? That’s me. And I know it’s me, when I’m in the middle of explaining the emotional context of a 3 AM subway ride and I can hear the rusty creaking strain of patience from my friends, and I can’t stop myself.

I just can’t.

So thank you, friends, and family, for your patience.

It’s times like those that make me wonder if my lack of self-esteem isn’t some foreign overlay, because when I’m telling you about the joyous schadenfreude of watching the jerk who cut me off halfway to my destination get pulled over by the cops for speeding, I am certain that you are feeling the righteousness just as much as I am, even though I’m only a third of the way through explaining why I was late for lunch, which was the point of the story anyway. I am confident that you feel it. And in those brief dissonant moments of self-aware clarity I dive in to press the point because that guy got what was coming to him hell yeah.

Stand-up comedians do this. This is their bread and butter. On occasion, I do it in front of an audience, too.

When you’re an outspoken fat chick who has completely given up on social norms of “feminine appearance” (because goddammit I just don’t have the energy or the time) you take what little advantage you have left and press it for all it’s worth. And that’s an astonishing thing to realize: I told stories once because I was good at it; I tell stories now because it’s a kind of social currency that I otherwise lack. It’s both an imperative and a defense mechanism: it’s not about me, it’s about an event. Sometimes any event. Does that make me lucky? Or should I have diversified?

There’s power in getting a word in edgewise before people make judgment calls about you. Now if I could just stop worrying what people thought in the first place.

Back to square one is not back to square one

The focus of my research has changed again — or more accurately, has refined itself even further, or become more fundamental. The upshot and downside is that the creative output for the research is now completely different (again). No game now, which is all right because I can put that together on my own once I’m finished with this research.

Now I’m helping on a larger project. And I couldn’t be happier, to be honest.

For someone who spends a lot of time writing, I spend a lot of that time in the company of others. Yeah, sure, I’ve got short stories that have been accepted, and I’ve got a couple of ideas for novels that are quietly keeping warm on the backburners of an extraordinarily large oven, but a lot of the making stuff I that I do is in the company of others. I spend at least one day a week, usually, in some kind of tabletop RPG, and plot all kinds of collaborative fiction projects that I have no business thinking about until this research is over. I cut my teeth on playwriting pretty early, too, and if there ever were a collaborative art, it’s theater.

With this project — which I’m being vague about because I still don’t have complete details to share — collaboration is built-in. I’m not responsible for generating the bulk of creative content; here I’ll be writing, but so will others, and I’ll be facilitating and coordinating, too. I can focus on collaborative processes as much as creative ones, and more importantly, write about what’s happening and why I think it’s happening. And I’ll have all kinds of people to talk about it to, to ask question of.

So back to square one is not back to square one. All the stuff I’ve pored through in the past few years is still relevant, just in a different way, and in a way that resonates more strongly with what I tend to do when I make stuff up (I’m not quite ready to call it “my creative practice”). There’s relief and new anxiety in equal measure, but the anxiety is toned down by excitement and that’s a fine place to be.