growing things

Today was an object lesson in why Canadians don’t plant anything in the ground before Victoria Day (May 24th) weekend. It’s May 15th and actual flakes of snow fell out of the sky. Not enough to accumulate, but still.

Being a giant dork, I’m a huge fan of the BBC’s Farm series – Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, etc. Two archaeologists and a historian live and work on a farm using only the tools and techniques of the period. All three of them are great teachers and the show is both fascinating and educational.

But I also find it hilarious when they start panicking about not being able to get their crops in the ground in February. Where I come from, you couldn’t get a back-hoe into the ground in February, let alone crops.

Despite the weather, however, I did manage to do a teeny bit of gardening. I came across themicrogardener.com, which has instructions about how to grow spring onions from the cut ends of the ones you buy in the grocery store.

Spring onions

So these little guys are now living in my kitchen window. I’m supposed to change the water every day. We’ll see how long I can remember to do that. I’ll post pictures if I actually get something to grow!

Paris

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The Louvre at sunset.

I seem to have skipped over the part where I explained that I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, so let me step back and do that now. On Tuesday I hopped on a train and got off in a completely different country just over two hours later. I love Europe.

The night before I left London, my dad called me from Canada to sort out some mail that arrived while I’ve been away. We ended up reminiscing about a trip we took to Paris when I was eight. My dad wanted to show my brother and I the wonders of the Old World, which is an admirable sentiment, but he got very upset when we were most excited about the moving walkways in the airport. May I repeat, I was eight years old and my brother was six.

During this conversation, though, he managed not to yell at me about that (again), and I started listing some of the things I remembered about the trip. We rented an apartment near the Pompidou centre. We saw Napoleon’s tomb. We broke the washing machine in the apartment and flooded the bathtub. We visited the palace of Versailles. My brother and I both got strep throat.

I think because of that conversation with my father, I’ve been trying to recapture some of the experiences from when I was a child. I bought a bottle of Orangina, because my brother and I drank that the whole time we were here. It didn’t exist in Canada at the time. Neither did KinderEggs, which we also loved on that trip.

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Street art near the Pompidou Centre.

The Pompidou Centre is the Paris gallery of contemporary art. (When I was eight there was a giant boat that had knives unfolding (as in: they moved, folding and unfolding) from it like a swiss army knife as part of an installation on the ground floor. That is one of my clearest memories. This year, there is a wrecked car surrounded by caution tape.) Inside, they have an extensive collection, including Picasso, Chagall, and Kandinsky, among many, many others. The outside of the building is notable as well, with all its technical guts on display. All the heating ducts and plumbing pipes and gas lines are on the outside of the building, colour-coded for ease of identification.

Despite a long day of walking on Thursday (I did three separate walking tours of Paris during the day – more on that later) I insisted on schlepping across to the Pompidou centre before heading home just so I could walk around the outside of it. We stayed in that neighbourhood when I was eight and I feel like if I just closed my eyes for a second I might be able to retrace my steps and find our little apartment. (I asked my dad if he had a record of the address anywhere and he laughed at me.)

When I was eight, my dad wrote the address and phone number down on a piece of paper – in case we got lost or separated, I could tell a police officer where I belonged – and I zipped it into this little side pocket on my pink running shoes with the velcro straps. I distinctly remember I never took that paper out, even after we got home. Sadly, though, the shoes are long gone.

I didn’t find the apartment, although I think I figured out roughly what direction it was in. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had found it, but it felt important to try.

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My favourite place on the Left Bank.

This next part I probably shouldn’t even admit out loud, but we’ve already established that I’m a geek. I had a huge fondness for the television show Highlander back in the day, and it was set in Paris for about half of every season. So there are a few places in Paris that are indelibly linked in my mind with that show. The Seine near Notre Dame where the barge was moored, the church of St-Julien-le-pauvre that was Darius’, and the bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

Shakespeare and Company is a tourist stop in its own right (and it is so crowded this week they have someone stationed at the door to control the flow of people). It is famously linked to Earnest Hemingway and James Joyce and the Lost Generation in Paris.

In addition to just being a wonderful English-language bookshop, it hosts talks and readings and events. There are a couple of different writers’ workshops based there. And I hear they also offer crash space in exchange for two hours’ work a day at the shop, although I have no idea how you would go about arranging that.

And it is just a stunningly beautiful shop in its own right – warren-like, crammed with books to the very ceiling, supported by ancient, pitted wooden beams, with a library upstairs full of chairs and cots for sitting on, and even a tiny writing cubby. (There is even a picture of the eponymous Shakespeare, framed and hung out in the air shaft (..?), visible through a window at the top of the stairs. The frame has a little ledge on the top edge to keep the rain off.)

But I will always love it because the Watchers owned it on Highlander. Hey, it’s the little things that make me happy when I’m so far from home.

Circus Life – I am a geek

Confession #1: My friend J moved to London a month before I did, so I was not entirely alone when I arrived. (She made the far more practical choice to enroll in teachers’ college in the UK rather than my wing-and-a-prayer approach.)

Confession #2: I am a geek.

My social life, for those first two months in London, revolved around a pub called Pages. This was the first (and only) scifi pub I had ever encountered, with Star Trek-themed decor and a model of the Starship Enterprise hanging from the ceiling. I believe that during the week it was a relatively normal place, but on Saturday night, it belonged to the geeks.

£3 got you in the door, and if you didn’t turn up early – particularly on Buffy-themed nights, called Nos (Nosferatu) Nights – you wouldn’t get in at all. Inside, some folks were in costume, others were just dressed up – my friends had a distinct goth flavour, with corsets and lace, chainmail and vinyl. We were there to hang out with people who loved the thing we loved, to be geeks together in a safe space.

We were also there to watch the newest episodes of scifi TV shows, played on bootleg discs mailed from North America. These episodes wouldn’t air in the UK until months, or even years, after they aired in the States, and going to Pages was the only way to see them. (This was back in the infancy of the internet, before iTunes or streaming or pirating.) When you’re passionate about something, patience is not so much a virtue.

It being a bar, there was also booze, which helped me to be a little less awkward. And once the episodes were over, they jacked up the music and we danced until the end of the night. I sprinted for the last tube home more than once – London is a giant, sprawling, international city, but even on Saturday night the tube shuts down before midnight.

A decade later, I still miss Pages. I still think there should be scifi pubs just like there are sports bars. In fact, I think there’s functionally very little difference between the two. There has never been another social space where I have felt so accepted, so at home.

I grew up in a small, conservative private school. My graduating class had only thirty-nine people in it, and I’d known about half of them since I was four. I left that school very well educated but socially… challenged.

I lived at home through university, so I never had the explosion of self discovery that seems to happen in that first year out in the world. But, free from all the expectations and assumptions of high school classmates who had known me my whole life, in university I began to slowly unfurl.

I realized that I was probably gay, or at least bi. (The moment when it clicked that being a lesbian didn’t make me something else, but rather explained who I had been all along was an epiphany. It was freedom. But that is a story for another time.)

I also began to read about paganism, and Wicca in particular, and found it fit my worldview much more closely than either of the organized religions I encountered as a child.

(I felt bad for my parents sometimes – rather than outright rebellion, I just grew progressively stranger.)

I met J during this time, and she was the first friend I had with whom I felt safe to explore that side of myself. (Not sexually, just for the record. J and I never dated, or ever wanted to.) Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when the online world was just taking its first steps beyond CompuServe and AOL, we used to hang out on the same mIRC chat room. (It was devoted to the television show Babylon 5.) In addition to both being scifi geeks, J and I also shared a love of theatre, and books, and travel. Years of not fitting in at school conditioned chameleon tendencies into me, and spending time with someone so much closer to who I was on the inside was a profound relief. I didn’t have to hide nearly as much.

As I mentioned above, J moved to London a month or so before I did. Shortly after she arrived, she spent the weekend at a science fiction convention and made friends with all the most interesting people there. (J is very much NOT an introvert.) When I finally turned up, J couldn’t wait to introduce me to them all.

Exactly one week after I arrived in London, there was another convention. It was for a show neither of us watched, so J and I didn’t go for the whole weekend, but J insisted we turn up for the dance on Saturday night.

It was too cold to wear my party clothes for the long schlep out to the hotel by Heathrow airport, so I packed them in a bag to change into when I got there. Once I was all dolled up, though, I ended up with a heavy bag of everyday clothes slung over my shoulder as I hovered on the edge of the crowd.

The dance hadn’t started yet, and  people were just milling. J disappeared to say hi to another group of friends, and I ended up by myself, surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were all very nice and welcoming – J had told them all about me – but they were also cooler and prettier and more confident than me[1]. I felt painfully awkward. I’m not good with new people and I don’t do chit chat well. I perched on a chair on the far side of the table from everyone else, listening to conversations about people I didn’t know, and tried to look nonchalant. I felt like the dorkiest dork in the world.

It was easier at Pages, though. In smaller groups, and with a shared passion for Xena to start us off, I got to know these new friends. I got to see them geek out just like me, not just about tv shows, but about books and theatre. Most of them were pagan in one way or another. And a majority of the women identified as bisexual.

They were my safe space. I was still shy and I was still awkward, but I had such freedom to explore. I tried on so many different pieces, just to see how they fit. I wore leather trousers and metal bras, lacy goth, and revealing cyberpunk. I wore too much makeup, or none at all. I drank rum coolers and danced to cheeseball pop music. I played pass-the-icecube in the pub late one Saturday (mouth to mouth, with a little kissing, until there was nothing but a melting sliver on a cold tongue), with half a dozen other girls – no boys allowed – just because it felt good.

Saying goodbye to those girls, walking away in the middle of that exploration to go on tour with the circus was a shock to my system. In retrospect (and with huge irony, given the story of how I got the job) it was the worst possible timing.

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1. I sent this post to J, so she could read it before I made it public. I wanted to make sure she was okay with what I was writing. (She is.) And she replied:

“You know the funny part about this line? If you’d asked pretty much any of them, they’d have said the same thing about everyone else. [We] had a long talk about that once. And none of us ever realized we were the “cool kids” at Pages and at the cons until someone from outside the group told us. We were just being who we were and dressing how we wanted to. Perception is a funny thing.”

(BACK TO POST)

the five books that have stuck with me

I have not been officially tagged by anyone – except, indirectly, by the act of reading Chuck Wendig’s list – but I never needed much of an excuse to talk about my favourite books. I’ve also reduced the list from the top ten to the top five books that have stuck with me, because it turns out I have quite a lot to say about each one.

1)  Oath of the Renunciates, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is a complicated choice, given the recent accusations that Marion Zimmer Bradley physically and sexually abused her daughter. But I cannot deny that this book stuck with me in a way that no other book ever has.

Also, technically, this is two books – Thendara House and The Shattered Chain – but I first encountered the hardcover omnibus edition called Oath of the Renunciates in the basement of the library in the small town where I lived during my teenage years. I was fourteen years old, and unhappy, and I read this book over and over and over again. It was formative in a way that books can only be when you encounter them at fourteen.

Oath of the Renunciates is sword and sorcery about women, and only about women. A whole subculture of women who choose to live without men. A wide variety of women – midwives, travel guides, mercenaries, bakers, priestesses, and so on. I hadn’t ever encountered that before.

Most of all, though, the lead character goes through the process of realizing she is sexually attracted to women. I wasn’t ready, at that age, to admit even to myself that I might feel the same way, but seeing those feelings, that process reflected back at me by characters I admired was hugely important. It widened my world, and it made the idea of being lesbian or bisexual less scary. And this, this book, this reaction, is why it’s so important to have diversity in science fiction. This is so much more important than ‘it gets better.’

This book was SO important to me, in fact, that I can’t actually read it anymore. It is irretrievably linked with my teenage years, and trying to bring adult sensibilities to that relationship just doesn’t work.

2)  Hellspark, by Janet Kagan. By rights, all three of Janet Kagan’s books (Hellspark, Mirabile and Uhura’s Song) should be on this list, but I’m going to let this one stand in for all of them. I love every word Janet Kagan ever wrote, and I’m crushed that she passed away and there won’t ever be more than three of her novels.

I met her once at a convention in New York. I was there to see the media guests – Claudia Christian and Nana Visitor – and I didn’t even realize there would be author guests as well until I got there. I kicked myself the whole time for not bringing my copy of Uhura’s Song with me for Janet Kagan to sign. I bought a copy of Hellspark and she signed that instead. (For K – Rise with the sparks!!! Cheers, Janet Kagan. PS – I love your outfit!)

I tried three or four times to read it, and kept miring down in the prologue. I couldn’t get into the book at all. And then one day I picked it up and managed to push through into chapter one, and the book just opened up like a sunflower.

I realized that the reason I was having trouble with the prologue was actually the same thing that made the book amazing. Janet Kagan’s aliens were alien, with alien body language and thought patterns and customs. The prologue was told from the point of view of one of those aliens, and I was having a lot of trouble connecting with how different he was. In chapter one, the point of view character changed, and the new narrator was much more accessible and able to ‘translate’ for the reader.

I devoured Hellspark after that. I love this book. In it, as in all of Janet Kagan’s work, her love of learning and language and science – biology in particular – is wonderfully, accessibly, enthusiastically woven through. Not only did I learn things while being thoroughly entertained, this book changed the way I look at the world. You can’t ask more from a book than that.

3)  Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery. And its sequels – all of them. And the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And Louisa May Alcott. And Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read a LOT of historical fiction as a child, and something about that Victorian sensibility has stayed with me. It’s something about the self-sufficiency of the women in these books. All my crafty hobbies, my delusion that I know anything about horses, my dream of one day growing my own food from my own garden, my yearning to learn to make jams and preserves and quilts, they all stem from my love of these books and their worlds at a very young age.

These books gave me strong female role models at a time when it was harder to find them in science fiction and fantasy. Not to mention that Anne Shirley and Jo March were both young writers.

When I first started writing, it took me a long time to shed the Victorian wordiness I had picked up from these books. I’m sure it has had a lasting impact on my ‘voice’, though I’m too close to see it anymore.

4)  Summon The Keeper, by Tanya Huff. I met Tanya Huff at Ad Astra (a literary science fiction convention in Toronto) the same year I met Janet Kagan. I had been to a number of media conventions by that point, but hadn’t ever been to a literary con before. It blew my mind that published authors would get together and talk to me (not personally, but you know what I mean) about writing in general and writing science fiction in particular.

I sat down in one of the panel rooms on Saturday morning, and stayed there for hours as the guest panelists came and went in front of me. I soon realized that Tanya Huff was by far the most entertaining panelist there, so instead of letting the discussions come to me, I sought out her panels and basically followed her around the convention for the rest of the day. We bonded over a discussion of Star Trek vs Babylon 5 in the afternoon, and then again when she broke a beer stein over my head (well, next to my head, and it was accidental – long story) in the evening. We’ve been friends ever since.

I bought a copy of Summon the Keeper at that convention, the first one of Tanya’s books I ever read. The book was just as funny and clever and entertaining as Tanya herself, and I have since read my way through every single book she’s written (and even made a minor guest appearance in one of them). I think her Valor series are my favourites, but Summon the Keeper has stayed with me most in the form of the friend I made that day.

5) To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I have bought so many copies of this book it’s possible that Connie Willis owes me royalties. I hand them out like candy to anyone who will stand still long enough.

I love this book. It has exactly my wordy sense of humour, it’s smart and complicated without being impenetrable, it’s set in both the past and the future, and there’s even a little romance in there. It is so thoroughly researched I learn things just from reading it, and I think the book could qualify as a master class in plotting all by itself. (It is also the reason that Victorian furniture makes me laugh, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Last year I was in Oxford for work, and all I could think of the whole time was this book, which is partially set there. I found myself taking photos of various places and landmarks mentioned in the story and emailing them to a friend who loves the book as much as I do. It’s been probably 15 years since I first read it, and yet it is clearly still firmly lodged in my brain.

What are the books that have stayed with you most? If you’ve already blogged, you can link back there in the comments. I’m always curious about how books can shape people. So much power in those little black squiggles.

 

Daily Science Fiction

I want to share a short story that I loved.

A friend of mine introduced me to Daily Science Fiction not long ago. It’s a mailing list (they also have a website) that will deliver a new science fiction story to your inbox every day. I fell in love with the concept, even though I quickly fell way behind in reading the stories. I do enjoy having them in my inbox, and will often dip in to read one or two on my lunch break – on days when I get a lunch break. (Work is still a little nuts.)

The other day I read a story that completely charmed me. I loved the characters and the tone and the language. There was a hint of mystery and a feeling of quiet melancholy. I have a huge love for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one was unlike any other I’ve read so far. It’s my favourite of the stories I’ve received in my inbox, so I thought I’d share it.

The Astrologer’s Telling is by Therese Arkenberg (who blogs at ThereseArkenberg.blogspot.com).

40 years of blogging experience in one place

Okay, the link I want to share today is to a video that is a little more than a year old. I realise that in internet terms that makes it virtually prehistoric, but it’s one of my favourites and it’s something I go back to every so often, so I thought I’d share anyway.

Patrick Rothfuss has a show on the Geek and Sundry channel of YouTube called The Story Board, and in this one particular episode, he gathers together three other very successful writers for a discussion about blogging and memoir that is hugely enjoyable and actually really informative.

The participants are all hugely well-known in the geek world. If you’re not a geek, please don’t let it put you off. There is very little geek content in the discussion. It’s very much all about the blogging and the writing.

Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the Kingkiller Chronicles (the first two books, The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear, are out, we’re still waiting for the third) which are both fantasy and biography in terms of genre. John Scalzi is a Hugo award-winning science fiction novelist, and has been blogging at whatever.scalzi.com since 1998. Jenny Lawson is the author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and is also The Bloggess. And Wil Wheaton (best known for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation) is a self-published author and has been blogging forever. I’m not certain how long Patrick Rothfuss has had his blog, but I’m pretty sure that between them they have about 40 years worth of blogging experience.

It is on the long side, but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t drag at all. I had it on while I was making pancakes one morning and ended up feeling like they all joined me for brunch. They talk about the balance between blogging about work and blogging about life; about whether to talk about their kids’ lives, and if so, how best to do it; about how strictly they feel the truth of a situation needs to be represented; about what NOT to blog about; and so on. And as not only a newbie blogger but an emerging writer in the creative non-fiction genre, this conversation felt like sitting down to a masterclass on the subject of memoir in general. They have been blogging so long, they’ve had a chance to make the mistakes and learn from them, they’ve struggled with the issues I’m just beginning to face.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re all funny and are clearly having a great time talking to each other.

I came to this video through, I think, Wil Wheaton’s twitter account. Maybe? But after spending the morning with them, I ended up hunting down all of their blogs and have been following them ever since.