On Well-Wishing: A Parable

Imagine for a moment that you’re a personal assistant, and further, that you share the same birthday as your boss.

You’re totally excited for your boss’s birthday. They’re a wonderful person. They pay you well. They even give you your joint birthday off.

But every year in the days and weeks leading up to your birthday, every call, every office visit, every delivery comes with someone saying “Tell your boss Happy Birthday!” There’s nothing wrong with it, though after a few years of it, you do feel a bit invisible.

So you decide, hey, it won’t hurt, so when people say “tell your boss Happy Birthday,” you good-naturedly respond. “Of course I will. It’s my birthday, too!”

Some people say happy birthday back to you.

But then you get that person who snipes back, “I’m RSVP-ing to your boss’s party, not yours. What, am I supposed to go to a birthday party for you, too, at the same time?”

And you calmly tell them, “Well, no. You should go to the party for the person you’re celebrating.”

“Do you hate your boss?”

“No, they’re great.”

“But you need me to wish you a happy birthday, instead.”

“No. I don’t want to take away. I just figured, in addition, since we were in a celebrating mood–”

“Why does this have to be about you?”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Tell. Your. Boss. Happy. Birthday.” And they hang up.

You mention this to your boss, who brushes it off. “Honestly, you should just assume that anyone wishing a happy birthday is wishing it to both of us.”

“Even when they say it’s just for you?”

“Totally. That’s what I do.”

“Do people tell you to wish me a happy birthday a lot?”

“Not really.”

After this, there are people who remember, who say “Happy Birthday to you both,” which is not only just as easy to say, it’s a little breath of fresh air in the flurry of the other people. But when people only wish your boss the happy birthday, you know, thanks to your boss, that it’s really for both of you.

Kind of. But not really.

What’s this little parable got to do with anything? Probably nothing.

In any event: Happy Holidays.


There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

That Word. I Think It Both Does and Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Doing or saying or thinking a racist thing does not make you a cross-burning, hood-wearing, swastika-sporting Racist. I think that’s important to articulate because, much the same way people seem to get confused by marriage the secular set of rights vs marriage the religious institution, the resonance of the same word applied to different circumstances makes it difficult to parse on an emotional level. It’s vital that people are able to identify racism in themselves without feeling that any such identification makes them some villainous terror.

However, and just as important to articulate, is that doing or saying or thinking a racist thing is also not entirely divorced from cross burning and hood wearing and swastika sporting. It’s not a straight line, certainly, but on one level that’s how systemic abuse works. It makes “tiny things” easy to hand wave off. It requires people to “have a sense of humor” about said tiny things. And, in isolation, perhaps that off-color joke or that tension in our shoulders or the way we whisper certain colors or tell someone they don’t act like one or more stereotype are small.

Except they aren’t in isolation, and it doesn’t matter how small something is if there’s enough of it. It doesn’t even matter how little of it comes at a time if it never stops coming. A handful of sand each day is meaningless, if we sweep it up and throw it away.

But if we leave it, if we groan at the people who ask us to clean up after ourselves, if we argue it’s not our fault the dust bin is already overflowing, if we say ‘it’s just a little sand what’s the big deal?’ Then it’s not just a handful of sand each day. It’s a handful of sand every day, and soon enough, there’s a great big beautiful sandbox for the people who like playing in the dirt to take advantage of, and guess who’s buried underneath?


With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.


I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.


Pulling Back the Curtain

This past Saturday, I was finally able to marry the man I’ve been with through eight years and (some not insignificant legal) change. It’s been a long time coming, and it was a lot of wonderful things. My husband (!) designed a crazy-spectacular steampunk wedding with what shouldn’t have been nearly a large enough budget, and melted my heart in all the right ways. He knows that, and if he doesn’t, then I’ve got work to do, but that’s marriage, right?

Wonderful, too, were all the people who worked their effing butts off driving U-hauls or carting set pieces or tying strings for lanterns or, honestly, showing up and being there. Every little bit helped and mattered and there aren’t enough letters on the keyboard to express my thanks.

I’m not going to spend more time gushing about the awesome, though, because let’s be honest: that just winds up sounding like bragging, anyway. I’m not here to make everyone who wasn’t there jealous that they couldn’t be. Quite the opposite.

For several personal reasons that I’m not going into (this post may be a lot more open about my personal life than others, but I’m still a private person), when the legal window opened in Florida, we wound up with a short timetable for planning and pulling off a wedding. If we had any hope of getting anyone at all there, we had to invite quite quickly. But because of the same restrictions that meant we were rushing out invites, our guest list had to be painfully short.

There are a lot of people in the world we love, and whom we know love us. Extended family members and friends whom we knew would be ecstatic for us, the sight of whom would make us ecstatic. And we couldn’t have them all.

Back when I taught, we used to talk about how a heavily-edited paper was “bleeding” from the red pen. Our invitation list felt a lot less metaphorical in its bleeding. You can’t see it, but every name we crossed off to make it possible to have our wedding at all was like slicing off our fingertips. Some people understood and some people didn’t. I think more of the former than the latter, but I’m not a telepath, so I suppose I’m just guessing.

Whether it’s people you couldn’t invite or people who couldn’t attend for schedule or financial reasons or — because we’re human — people who couldn’t be there because they’ve passed, no matter how long you can make your guest list, there will always be someone missing.

We had oh so many of all those folks. That they weren’t lined up in chairs back further than the horizon ached just below our chests and stung the corner of our eyes.

But we saw and felt at least a bit of them in loaned props and set pieces, in original creations crafted with amazing talent and skill, in vendors we only found from recommended phone numbers and names they let us drop. They were there from the remnants of their strong hugs when we ran into each other out in the world. They lingered in every verbal or virtual “congratulations.”

That wedding wasn’t just three months in the offing. Or even eight years.

You helped make it happen if we ever met you. From every small or large interaction, good or bad, that eventually steered the two of us together, kept the two of us together. If you think this is about you, it is. You’re why and how this happened.

And we can’t thank you enough.


When the Presents Are Packed

You can pretty much blame my evil twin Laura for this one…

“What was he thinking?” Father asked as Mother kept fiddling with the gravity net.

“He’s my brother,” Mother answered, as if that were all the more explanation a body needed. Given that Father rolled his eyes and nodded, it seemed this actually was sufficient explanation for the monstrous construct of yarn, popsicle sticks, and PseudoLife PuttyTM balanced precariously atop the family cruiser.

The control panel sparked again and Mother swallowed down another string of curses as her adjustments strained the net’s capacity.

“I just can’t fit the head in,” she groaned.

“I think that’s the tail,” little Marissa offered.

“But, look at that big bulbous bit at the end,” Father countered.

“How can that be a head with no eyes, silly?” Marissa said.

“Then what’s that opening for?” Mother piped in, her antennae quivering in challenge. Marissa blushed plaid.

“That’s for … making stinkies,” she whispered.

Father and Mother both looked back at this year’s Antimas gift from Uncle Mort, turning their heads sideways to give the moaning thing a different look. They both nodded, clicking their secondary tongues.

“You might have something there,” Mother said.

“And the moaning does just seem to echo out from all over, so that might not be a mouth, after all,” Father added.

“I think it might be sitting on its face,” Marissa offered.

“Well, I’m not wrestling with it again even if it is,” Mother said. Her primary tongue stuck out the side of her mouth as she worked the gravity net settings one last time. The head-or-tail shifted slightly closer to the cruiser’s roof with a nondescript grunt and Mother gave a gleeful cheer of success.

Everyone piled in. Marissa sandwiched between Aunt Geranium’s palladium pies and the stack of granite texts from Grandpa Sy. Mother popped them up over Geranium’s lunar camper while Father pulled up the navigation display, then Mother turned the velocity dial to high.

“All right, now there’s no need to fly recklessly, dear,” Father said, glancing back. “Marissa: inertial field on, young lady. Do not roll those eyes at me.”

“It was only three,” Marissa pouted.

Mother sighed.

“I’d say I’ll turn this cruiser around, but there is no way short of a pulsar explosion I’m spending one more minute in that house.”

“You aren’t helping,” Father muttered, though Mother caught the smile he was trying to hide.

Mother’s white dwarf fingers gained them a good lightyear back from the delay loading Uncle Mort’s present. Marissa fell asleep in the back, until an especially sudden jerk sent one of the granite texts into her lap.

She looked out the viewports and frowned.

“Where are we?”

“Well, we hit a radiation storm,” Mother said, “and somebody decided he had a shortcut.”

“I didn’t hear you objecting, dear,” Father countered. “And there isn’t much traffic here, is there?”

“Because this is the most backwater system I have ever seen,” Mother answered. “I mean, look out there! Unfinished rings on the outer orbits, no radiation management on the solar track, their only regular comet still runs on an outdated three-quarters century model, and … I mean, look at this one,” Mother pointed to the third planet from the central star, leaning to get a better view. “They’re evolving mammals down there, for goodness’ sake. Who does that any more?”

“Mother, look out!” Father called out suddenly.

This time Mother didn’t manage to contain the string of curses as she swerved to avoid the moon she hadn’t seen. Marissa shrieked and buried her face in her tail.

“It’s all right, honey,” Father called back, though he had a death grip on the stabilizer controls.

Mother struggled to course correct, but after a tense few moments, the cruiser was back on track.

“Okay. Okay, we’re all fine,” Mother called with a sigh.

“My present!” Marissa cried out in dismay.

Sure enough, when Father called up the rear display, Uncle Mort’s present was toppling down to the green planet. The gravity net had apparently faltered as they bounced through the rough and unpleasant-smelling thermosphere.

“We have to go back!” Marissa said with a quiver in her voice.

Mother and Father glanced to each other, then back to where Uncle Mort’s creation was splashing down on one of the tiny island land masses, and tried not to show their relief.

“Sweetie, I’m afraid it’s gone,” Father said, patting Marissa’s knee.

“She! She was a girl!” Marissa shot back.

“Of course she was,” Mother offered supportively. “But it really is for the best.”

“Is not,” Marissa pouted.

“Now, let’s think, dear. You know that if you don’t water PseudoLife PuttyTM  regularly, it stops moving and shrivels up,” Mother noted.

“And you have that hydrogen sensitivity, dear,” Father added. “but look–” here he pointed to the tracking display. “It’s already waddled its way into a natural body of water. Lots of room and everything it needs to keep, er, moaning and moving for centuries to come.”

“You think?” Marissa said with a sniff.


Marissa looked to the viewfinder again, then wiped a few eyes dry.

“Okay.” She got up on her knees and turned backwards, waving as she called. “Good-bye, Nessie! Take care of yourself!”

“Young lady. Inertial field.”

“Yes, Father.”

Marissa took her seat again as Mother veered back onto Primary Interstellar 3875. Mother and Father gave each other silent glances and smiles knowing they’d not have to cart Uncle Mort’s alien craft all the way home.