All the extra stuff that goes into writing

Hello friends! Was feeling like procrastinating so I was like, why not do something about that online journal I’ve been writing for the past…thirteen years. Yes, since August of 2008–thirteen years.

Have been feeling lazy and unaccomplished this year, even though by any rational standard I have done a lot! I finished listening to the Bible, I read Chaucer and the Canterbury tales in Middle English, I’ve made considerable progress in studying old english–have now started seriously studying up on the articles and pronouns, and afterwards will bone up on noun declensions before tackling that bugbear: verb conjugation. I thought for a while I could skip all this stuff simply by learning what all the words meant, and I do think focusing on vocabulary initially was a good idea, but I’ve reached a point where I really do need to learn the difference between he, heo, hit, and him.

I’ve also written stories, essays, poems, and complete drafts of two novels (one a revision and the other an all-new first draft). I’m getting ready to turn in my YA novel to my editor, and this novel didn’t even exist a year ago! I came up with the idea, so far as I can remember, sometime last December. My fortunes truly have turned around tremendously in the course of one year.

But the thing about having a child and having full-time childcare is you just feel a little inadequate. So many people have MANY children–they have no or little childcare–they have financial troubles. There are people out in the world doing a lot more than I am, and doing it with less.

So I’ve been feeling a little lost. Wondering if I’m making the best use of my time and my life. Like today, it wasn’t until about 9:45 that I really sat down to work. Then I ended up practicing my Anglo-Saxon–mostly as a way of procrastinating. I’ve been listening to a romance novel: a woman on a podcast recommended Tessa Dare, and I’ve been finding her books quite comforting. So I practiced articles and pronouns and listened to this novel.

And the thing is, I do believe this is writing-related activity. I’m certain of it. Nothing has influenced my writing more this year than reading Chaucer–it’s given me an entirely different sense of rhythm and of sound–and that’s the sort of thing that it’s easy to not do if you start thinking of writing–of the typing of words–as your job. When you’ve already been published, everything in your life, everything in the world, pushes against you, trying to stop you from growing. It’s very hard to keep that focus on, just, getting better and learning new things.

The thing about learning is it’s a little messy. I mean, this is true of writing in general–most of it looks like nothing. But you do a little bit each day, without really know what’s going on or what you’re doing, and, very, very, very slowly, it starts to come together.

Finished a draft of my third YA novel!

Hello friends. You know, I have during my life read a lot of posts on author blogs where they’re like, “I’m on deadline for a book, so you won’t see much of me for the next few weeks.” And I’ve always wondered why: writing a book isn’t that time-consuming—it takes a few hours a day—and writing blog posts isn’t that time-consuming either, it takes about thirty minutes. Moreover, if you’re a writer, when are you not working on something? What does it matter if you’re close to deadline or not—you’re always working.

Welp, as the deadline for my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here approached, I just naturally fell off posting here. So now I know! Somehow the blog just became a lower priority. And now that I’ve completed a draft, I find myself writing a post again.

Yes, I’ve completed a draft! Yay!!!! I’m very happy with it. As always happens to me lately, as I write my books I’m like, wow, this is so dangerous and transgressive—nobody else has ever written anything like this before. It’s pretty cool. In this case, I deviated early on from my synopsis in one small but major way—I decided to have my main character be pre-HRT. So, biologically, in some sense (not up on the terminology), she’s unchanged from before she started identifying as a girl. And she’s now in an all-girl’s school. I just thought it was really cool, and it’ll be really empowering for other kids to see that, you know, there’s more to gender than hormones and biology.

There are SO few trans girls in YA that I don’t think there’s actually even been a straightforward coming out story yet. And this won’t be one of those—personally, I like coming-out stories—I think writing a trans girl’s coming out would be super cool—but I more or less skipped over most of that, so I could just write a book about a girl who’s kind of in the early-middle stages. In fact, over the course of the book, she starts realizing that to other trans girls, she’s now, like, a role model.

Anyway, scattered, inchoate thoughts. I like the book. It’s has a lot of themes: mostly it’s about nature of leadership and the workings of power, but, as always, the characters are the core of the story. They surprise you, gaining new depth as you write. Unlike most of my stories—this book has outright villains—but I found myself empathizing with most of them, and I liked the little human touches I added. I also found myself really liking my protagonist—she’s different from the protagonist of my first two books—more diffident—less driven—her ambitions are kind of vague—she just wants to have the girlhood she always imagined herself having—and it was fun to see how that lack of deep, driving ambition played out in the story.

Lots of revision to do, of course. My stories often get a bit bogged down in the second half with twists and turns and set-pieces, and this was no exception. I need to take a hard look at the structure and see what can afford to go. That’s why, instead of tinkering with the book, I’m gonna set it aside, look at it fresh in a few weeks, then do some major cutting / revising before turning it in on November 1st. Then my editor will have notes, etc, but I think it’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be good.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten comments back from friends about my literary book, The Default World, and I’m interested in trying to use this time to revise that a bit, though I’m not sure how realistic that ambition might be. I’ve been feeling super lazy all morning, so it’s possible I won’t really get much done on that front.

In other news, I have two acceptances to announce. I tried my hand at writing one of those long, magisterial intellectual essays that you see in all the “Review of Books” type journals. This one is about the myth of the classical education and how elites were never as well-educated as we make them out to be—the classical education was really more of a middle-class aspiration than an elite actuality. The core points may or may not be true, but I argued them well enough, I think! Excited that this’ll be coming out in the Los Angeles Review of Books on November 15th. And I also had a poem accepted by a literary journal, Cherry Tree. Oh! And my story “Matriphagy” is out in the current issue of Asimov’s. So that’s a bunch of good stuff right there. I’ve been staying busy on the short fiction, essay, poetry front, though my writings, especially my short fiction, have become really strange lately—have been moving away from naturalistic prose and sentence structure and have been using some techniques I’ve glossed from Middle and Old English. Definitely wouldn’t work at novel length and potentially don’t work at short story length either, but we’ll see.

Giving equal weight to personal and to work goals

Okay, I’m a convert now to the idea that the new WordPress block editor is hard to use. I’ve given up on it—the interface literally feels creaky and slow, like there’s a lag or something before my words appear. Not sure what’s going on there. Lately I’ve been writing my posts in markdown in Notes and just copy/pasting them into WordPress.

Life has been good! I’m entering the last act of the YA novel (due to my editor 11/1) and as usually happens, there are a lot of things I want to clean up in the rest of the draft so that the ending can be really sharp and make sense. And then cleaning up that stuff has revealed other deficiencies that I also need to fix, and it’s a whole thing.

Where does the time go! As I write this, it’s already 2 PM! What have I done today?????? I did realize, however, that our days look a lot fuller and more productive if we realize that our work is only one part of our lives, one contributor to our happiness. For instance, I’ve recently made a commitment to throwing out all my old clothes from my male times, which means I need to buy, like, new pants and new t-shirts, new clothes just for throwing on and heading out. And I don’t feel safe going to stores, so I order them online, and then they come, and you have to try them on.

When I make lists of goals, making progress with transitioning is always in the top three, but there’s not really a lot you can do to speed things up—changing how I dress is one of those things, though! At any given time, I find there is one thing that’s really affecting how I think of myself. For a while it was body hair, then my voice, now my dress. I mean it’s a never-ending process, but it’s important is all I’m saying—equally as important to my well-being as other things that I’d technically mark in the ‘productive’ column.

Or having lunch with a friend, as I did today—it took two hours, between driving to his neighborhood and coming back—but every time I make lists of goals, I’m like…having more of a community, having more friends, that’s important. That’s also in my top three.

And, finally, I have this chronic knee pain, and what really helps is the stationary bicycle. And nothing will improve my quality of life more than addressing the knee pain. Addressing my knee pain is always in my top three goals too.

So when you put all those goals up next to the work goals, first of all, I don’t even know if work is in the top three—I think it is, but if so then it’s the fourth thing in the top three—but when you put it next to everything and give it all equal weight, then can I really say that today was less productive, given that I made progress on three of my top four goals, whereas yesterday I only made progress on one (work).

Also, I’m about to make some progress on work. As soon as I’m done writing this entry (which is definitely not in my top three.)

close up photo of a person s hand touching her knee
Knee health is very important.
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Extremely scattered reflections on the topic of earning and deserving and giving respect

I’ve gotten really into journaling and using pens and planners and diagrams and post-its and guided prompts. It’s a horrific waste of money, but much less so than my usual hobby of buying electronic junk. It also doesn’t really do much for you organizationally, since you spend so much time using the paper—as one anonymous online commenter once noted about Bullet Journaling, “The point isn’t to be organized or to do something, the point is the journal—being organized is itself the hobby.” They noted it as a negative: paradoxically, being organized takes up more time and energy than being disorganized would.

It’s a good point! I think there’s a reason so many highly effective people live in such chaos: it’s a way of delegating—it forces people around them to pick up slack, and it’s a way of prioritizing—anything that NEEDS to get done will get done. It’s like my advice to writers: if you really care about writing, it should literally be the first thing you do in the day. If you leave it to last, it’s too easy for it to slip away.

But you know what? Hobbies are fun. I like hobbies. I’ve never had them before—I only had semi-professional activities, like writing and reading, and total wastes of time, like video games. Now, for some reason, I’ve gotten way into hobbies. Like drawing, journaling, seeing paintings, etc. I think to a certain extent it’s because, with the sale of my third book, I’ve started to feel like, wow, this writing career is something approaching a profession for me! It’s a really weird thought.

Like people online are like, “Writers should get a living wage!” On Twitter someone was like, “A book from a major publisher should always get the equivalent of at least a year’s salary at [some minimal level, I forget what it was]”. And I’m always like…sure, but…there’s always someone else willing to do it cheaper. And the publisher loses money on my books anyway. But with WATN, I’m not 100 percent sure they did lose money. The book seemed to do fine! And they did pay me something approaching that minimum figure the Twitter commenter wrote about, too. So I have no complaints.

No stability, obviously, but I’m growing up.

Now where was I? Oh yes, something, something, something, journaling. Anyway, the prompt in one of my journals was like, “What do you need to thrive?”

When you write on these topics, something always pops up that you’re not expecting. In this case, amongst ten other things, I wrote that I needed “Respect.”

I was like, hmm, that’s odd! I’ve never thought that before.

It’s a very Ancient Greek idea. To any writer or thinker who lived in one of the ancient democracies it would’ve been intuitively obvious, even if Aristotle hadn’t written about it explicitly, that gaining honor is a major part of life. It was the backbone of their entire political and ethical system.

As Nietzsche noted, Christianity killed that ancient ethical system, but I still think it was getting at something. A person wants to be honored. They want to be acknowledged for their attainments.

So as I was thinking, how do I get respect, I started to think…”Do I give other people the respect they deserve?”

And I think in a lot of cases, the answer is no. I think a lot of times, I assume people are stupid or emotional, unless they’ve proven otherwise, and it comes through in some of my communications. And I think that uncertainty, running through how I write and talk, comes back to me as a lack of respect. I don’t talk to people as if I respect them, and so they don’t give me the same respect.

And often they’re right not to! I can be pretty emotional and irrational, especially when people give me their honest opinion. I think it’s easy to want respect if you imagine it means the same thing as praise. But it’s not. Someone can respect you, but not like you or your works or even think they have much value. There’s definitely a way people can be blunt and dismissive and disrespectful, but I don’t think it’s respectful to lie and sugarcoat your opinions. It definitely made me think!

In a similar vein, I’ll say, it’s nice sometimes to switch agents or editors or publishers, because you get a chance to do over all the things you did wrong the first time. I deeply regret all the times I was really emotional in situations when I shouldn’t have been.

When you sell a book, you have to grow up fast. And oftentimes, you don’t have many good role models. You don’t see examples of how real professionals—real old hands—communicate with their teams or handle adversity. I would say that in the sci-fi world there’s actually a little more of this, because it’s less hierarchical. I really value the outlook on life and publishing I got from Michael Swanwick and Joe Haldeman, in particular, at Clarion. As well as the similar lessons I gleaned from reading essays by Asimov or Heinlein or others from the Golden and Silver Ages. Although for a long time I thought I was too precious and artistic for that stuff to apply to me, I’m glad it was germinating inside me.

In a similar vein, I’ve been lucky to know Tess Sharpe—who I met at a literary retreat held by our then-agency back in…2013? 2014? My book later sold to the same editor as her debut did, and we were dropped by that publisher at the same time. Tess is a real pro. She’s actually amazing. I’m so happy she’s so outspoken on Twitter, because she’s teaching a generation of girls how to be flexible in the marketplace without sacrificing their principles.

But yeah….what was I saying, blah blah blah, something about respect…I don’t know. I’ve been SUPER emotional lately due to hormonal changes. Crying, mood swings, etc, but I haven’t let that hurt any of my professional or writer-type relations, which makes me happy, and is, I think, worthy of respect.

I don’t know. I think maybe what I didn’t grasp is that just being a good writer doesn’t make you worth of respect. Nor does simply being a kind or interesting person. You also need wisdom and integrity. It’s those two things that command respect. Like, if you have two writers, and one is a genius but is kind of poop when you meet them in person, and the other is a hack, but they act with dignity, then you’re always going to respect the second person more. You like or dislike the work, but you respect the person.

pile of plastic forks on white table
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Have been feeling really happy and enthusiastic lately

Hello friends, I’ve been really happy lately! I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m generally a sad person, but this level of happiness is something new. If this happiness was a drug, everyone would be addicted to it. In my case, it might very well be a drug: estrogen. Who can say? About a month or two after a person gets sober, there’s usually a period called ‘the pink cloud’, where everything seems wonderful and perfect. It’s some neurochemical reaction to no longer being dependent on something. Maybe there’s something similar when you get on hormones. On the other hand, trans women aren’t generally known for our cheerfulness, so perhaps it fades after a while. I can’t say.

If forced to guess, I’d say, there’s no way this feeling can last. It’s too good. The other day I was watching the baby play in a grassy meadow, and I was like, I can’t think of a single reason to not be happy. Why would I ever not feel this way? I have my work, my wife, and my widdle cute widdle tiny cute little tiny cute baby. And she wasn’t being particularly well-behaved that day either!

I’ve been trying lots of things! I’m taking a poetry class right now, and I’m taking a drawing class in October. Have gotten very into pens and inks and papers and journals and to-do lists. Am eating better. It’s great. No complaints, really.

Recently, I googled "Is happiness real?" I just assumed it was a myth! Like never-ending romantic love (which I am also starting to think might be real!). It’s hard to say. I’m really not counting on it. But it’s nice while it lasts.

You know, it’s really nice to try new things. I think when you’re a kid you develop ideas about yourself, like, I’m not good art art, I’m not visual, I have no rhythmic. And those things are true! But the variations we are talking about are so small. The real difference is between someone who’s really practiced and someone who hasn’t. If you want to perform on a world-class level, maybe you need some natural aptitude, but by the time people have practiced and practiced and practiced, it’s actually hard to say who has more aptitude! Lately I’ve taken up several things I thought I was naturally bad at: foreign languages and drawing. And I am definitely pretty bad, but I don’t know if I’m worse than other people. Like, there were so many things I never tried or stopped doing simply because they came hard. But they don’t need to come hard either! You can progress at your own pace. You can take up something and put it down, read up and let it go, get into it for a while and then stop for a year or three.

It’s definitely something I wished I’d known when I was younger, but I’m only 35. Who knows what I’ll be able to do when I’m 45 or 50?

bokeh photography of red rose
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Feeling really secure today in my Indian, Trans, Bisexual, American and other identities

I’ve been feeling very secure in my various identities lately. Even my Indian-ness and my Hindu-ness, which are things that are not a huge part of how I hold and present myself.

In the wars over cultural appropriation, I do think a lot of Indian-American anger is driven by a feeling of insecurity. We know we aren’t really Indian. Like, we go back to India, and people are like…you’re an American. There is no equivocation on their part–to them we are one hundred percent American, as much so as any white person.

So our Indianness consists of these shreds of tradition–our food, our religion–and the truth is, although we’ve done fine in America, a brown person can’t be fully 100 percent accepted as American by every American. I mean people will still ask me "Where are you from?" and if I’m visiting middle America, they might say "You speak such good English."

So when white people adopt Indian stuff, it feels like they’re taking away something we have, our culture, which we get in lieu of total Americanness. If white people can be Hindu and American, and we can’t be fully American, then what are we? Are we just worse?

But to me, it seems like the basic problem here is people trying to hold onto something they know to be false. Like, we are not Indian in the way someone who lives and grows up in India is. We wouldn’t want to be, quite frankly. I definitely wouldn’t want to be a trans woman in India…

But what we are is something that really can’t be taken away. The idea that any white person can really appropriate Indian culture is kind of laughable, to be honest. The knowledge we have is knowledge that cannot be faked. And any white person who had it would’ve needed to acquire it honestly. Like, when I try to explain how complicated colonialism is in India to my wife–how there is a holiday in Mumbai where dalits celebrate the victory of a mostly-dalit British regiment over the forces of a local King–that’s just not something that can be taken away.

I feel like if I was going around trying to claim to be something I’m not–to claim to be a practicing Hindu, to claim to be deeply conversant with our theology, to claim to speak Hindi and understand Hindi film and dance, I’d definitely be insecure. Like, yeah, there are probably a LOT of white people who understand Bollywood more than I do. And when they talk to me about Bollywood movies they liked, I’m like, I haven’t seen that movie, and I’m probably not going to. And yeah, if I’d grown up in India, I’d probably like Bollywood movies. But it’s okay. It is what it is.

To be honest, I also don’t really buy the premise that I’m not fully American. When someone is surprised I speak good English (which happens very rarely, I’ll add), I’m like…wow, you are a hick. Life, if you don’t get that America is full of brown people who are totally acculturated, then you don’t really know this country. And that person would probably agree. They’d be like, "This isn’t my country anymore." They’re more insecure than I am.

I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe people would get less hot and bothered if they weren’t trying to make claims that really didn’t entirely hold up. Like, if I claim to be the sole arbiter of Indianness, that doesn’t really hold up, and I know it doesn’t. Similarly, my life is really different from that of most trans women. I almost never get street harassment, I’m financially secure, and my family is pretty supportive. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trans. If someone was to tell me I’m somehow not queer enough, it’d be annoying, but it’d also be laughable. I felt the same way when I was a bisexual man married to a woman. Was it the same as being in a visibly queer relationship? No, obviously not. But I had still navigated queer desire, I had dated and slept with men. It was what it was! And even if I had never had romantic and sexual experiences with men, I still would’ve experienced that desire and navigated the feeling of shame and of being askew with what the world expected.

I’m not saying "We are all queer" and "We are all Indian" and "You can take as much as you want from any identity you want". What I’m saying is…people are what they are. An identity can’t be stolen. What I am can never be taken away from me. It’s when I lay claim to something I’m not, like if I was to lay claim to Bollywood, for instance, that I feel insecure.

But you can like Bollywood, you can love India and feel at home there, you can even practice Hinduism, but if you’re white, you can probably never have what I have. Which is exactly why I don’t feel the need to go around telling white people "You can never have what I have." Because it would just be petty.

Similarly, it feels like some queer people get so aggro oftentimes about bisexual women, particularly bisexual women in relationships with straight men. And it feels so petty! For one thing, there is nothing intrinsically superior about being gay or being in an opposite-sex relationship. For another, people are what they are. People in opposite-sex relationships know they’re not in same-sex relationships. The two things are different. If you know what things are, and if you know the thing you’re trying to hide or to avoid, then there’s no need to try and police other people.

I guess part of my perspective comes from being a trans woman who, if she just goes out in jeans and a t-shirt, reads as a large and not un-threatening man. It’s not crazy for a woman to feel threatened by my presence. It doesn’t mean I’m not a woman. And it doesn’t mean I need to feel bad or to cater to her feeling of being threatened. I didn’t grow up as a girl, andd I didn’t experience the first thirty years of my life as a female-bodied person. I’ve faced my own challenges, which were in some ways easier and in some ways harder than what many cis women have faced, but I understand what they were, and nobody can take the reality of those challenges away from me.

There are probably many cis women who see me, including some who are reading this, who are like, well, you’re not really a woman. And they’re thinking of some feature of their lives that I can never and will never experience. But most cis women are like, so what? You are what you are.

For me there is a lot of power in ccalling myself a woman and in laying claim to female pronouns, etc. But there’s also an ambiguity there that I can’t and don’t ignore. So when people are like, "You’re not really a woman" it doesn’t make me happy, but it also doesn’t erode my sense of self, because I know exactly what I am and what I am not, even when that knowledge can’t be articulated in precise or palatable ways.

Honestly, sometimes I feel kind of worried about people in this country. I think there are a lot of people out there who just have no idea who they are. They seem dangerously unmoored from any source of tradition or identity. And there’s really no need to be! Like, being American isn’t actually a blank slate. You’re heir to the entire English language for one thing. Read Chaucer, read Shakespeare, read old English, like I’ve been doing–it’s great. There’s a nice little identity right there. Even if you’re just the prototypical white person who’s a mix of German, Scot, Irish, Italian, and 1/16th Cherokee, you’re not a blank slate! You’re still a thing! Read on the Italian Renaissance! Read about the Irish beating back the Norman conquest over the course of four centuries. Or about Irish missionaries converting the Anglo-Saxons. Read Thomas Mann, read the Radetzky March, read Stefan Zweig. Don’t do or read any Cherokee stuff though, because people will make fun of you. You’re not nothing. You have a culture. You are special. You didn’t arrive on this earth de novo. You’re the descendent, most likely, of agriculturalists who migrated from the Near East up through Europe eight millennia ago, created an immense urban civilization, from 5500 to 3500 BC (a civilization about which we know virtually nothing), and then were conquered (just like my ancestors!) by horse nomads from the Eurasian steppe. It’s not nothing. It’s not any more or less culture than anyone else has.

If you can misinterpret the Bhagavad Gita, surely I can do the same to the bible

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ve probably noticed that I am listening to the Bible (starting with the Hebrew Bible, and then I’ll do KJV for the New Testament) on audible. I’ve been relaying my biblical hot takes, with the full awareness that for many of my believing friends, they could be kind of offensive. I mean, I’m listening to the Bible as literature–a document that’s heavily influenced the society in which I live. But for many people, this is the document they use to organize their lives.

Now, the obvious take is that you can’t appropriate the dominant culture of your time and place. I mean, we’ve got legislators trying to impose biblically-related strictures on our lives; they’ve made the Bible my business.

But I view it from a place of, well, I’m not a huge believer in cultural appropriation being wrong in the first place. I have a ton of friends who have some glancing familiarity with Hinduism and other religious / philosophical traditions from India, and usually their understanding of Hinduism strikes me as a bit comical. Like, they don’t even have a basic understanding of the concepts. For instance, your karma is a result of your actions in past lives–if you do good stuff in this life, it doesn’t mean good stuff will happen to you in this life. That’s not how it works.

Also I’ve never heard a white person discuss dharma–the central concept in Hinduism–your destiny, your fate, your place in society. Dharma, which is intricately related to the caste system, is all about doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing right now. And obviously white people who’re into Hinduism don’t like this, because clearly their dharma is not to be Hindus. If their dharma was to become a Hindu, they would’ve been born a Hindu. Their dharma is to be a good Christian.

But it’s okay! Having a comical misunderstanding of Hinduism doesn’t hurt anyone! And it’s a lot better than them practicing Hinduism the way it’s meant to be practiced, with all kinds of religious prescriptions and caste-discrimination. But if they can make free with Hinduism (and I DO think they’re fully allowed to do that), then I am allowed to have my own opinions on the Bible.

Like, okay, for instance, am I just totally crazy or…is the OT kind of silent on the area of whether or not it’s okay to sleep with sex worker? They’re like, don’t sleep with another person’s wife, don’t sleep with a mother and a daughter, don’t sleep with your mother’s daughter, don’t sleep with an aunt, don’t sleep with your father’s wife or your brother’s widow, and definitely don’t sleep with a Temple prostitute devoted to the god Moloch, and if a priest’s daughter becomes a prostitute that’s really bad, and if you live off the earnings of prostitution that’s bad, and if you set your daughter to become a prostitute that’s bad, like…isn’t there kind of a gap here? Clearly it’s sort of okay for a man to pay a woman for sex. And I assume, there’s also some exception for sleeping with your slaves, too. How come Mike Pence has never mentioned this?

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Hello friends, it’s a new week!

Not gonna get all sappy and stuff, because that’s not my brand, but I’ve been feeling pretty good lately. Like, really, really, really, really happy. It’s weird. Rachel has noticed and commented upon it. She’s like, why are you so affectionate and sentimental lately? It’s sort of changed the tenor of our entire lives. Being content is great. It doesn’t last, but it’s great.

Like, I’ve recently gotten on this whole “doing things around the house” kick, and I’ve gotten this big, big list of things that need doing. You know, call the gardener, get our gutters cleaned, etc. And I’ve been slowly knocking things off the list. I took the dog to vet, I found our picture-hanging kit, I filled our five-gallon water containers so we’re covered if the water goes out, I hired someone to clean our reeking compost bins, I washed my wig (I wear a wig–not sure if that’s supposed to be a secret). I’ve read and given comments to a few friends who had manuscripts with me (if you’re waiting on me, I should get to it in the next week or so). It’s been great.

Sometimes I do worry that I’m letting trivia take up the whole day. It’s pretty amazing how the list of stuff to do just gets bigger and bigger. A lot of it is make-work. Like binding down this big cord that runs across the periphery of our dining room. Or fixing my bedroom drawers (whose handles had fallen off) so they now have these cool lion-head door-pulls. I easily could’ve gone twenty years without doing those things. But I also think that these little tasks fill the interstices of the day. And they do give one a sense of accomplishment–a feeling that one can tackle the bigger tasks. AND I’ve been doing a ton of writing, too. Like, my YA novel is almost done. And my reading, hasn’t been too shabby either, though it’s been quite scattered. I’m halfway through several podcasts and books. I just finished a course on steppe nomads who’ve conquered or threatened sedentary civilizations, and now I’m listening to the Hebrew Bible on audio. So there’s lots of things there, but it’s admittedly scattered.

I’ve also been intermittently writing on pen and paper–just trying to improve my penmanship a little. It’s a bit of a trick to slow down and make better-formed letters. I’ve also been trying to write in italics a bit, by tilting the paper sideways, so my letters don’t look like I’m a second-grader who’s trying really hard. It’s a hobby. I have hobbies now.

Another thing I’ve gotten into is pictures. I went to the Legion of Honor museum in SF on Friday and spent some time looking at the pictures. I really like Bouguereau, who was a prominent Academy painter in 19th century France (you know, one of the people who Monet and Manet were rebelling against). I spent a while looking at this painting, which I thought was really striking.

The Broken Vase (1891)

I’m not the biggest art person, but I like a good picture. I’ve been thinking lately why a painting has the ability to appeal over a photograph, and I have to say, I think people underestimate the power that paintings carry due to their constructedness. I mean you could take photos all day and never get a subject who has the peculiar intensity of this girl sitting by the water pump. Just like with fiction, paintings can be more or less mimetic, but they’re all ultimately fantasies in a way that a photo can’t quite manage to be.

But like I said I’m not an art person!

The only problem I have is the problem possessed by all contented people. What next? I’m starting to understand how so many people manage to displace so much of their energy into child-rearing. It’s something I could pay more attention to, if I wanted to…

The difficulty with doing or starting anything, I’ve noticed, is that very few things can be carried forward, in any substantial way, over the course of a day. One can write a poem, or a short story, or a blog post, but that’s about it. However, when it comes to the larger point–developing one’s style or technique–it’s not a process that necessarily rewards a large expenditure of time.

This weekend, I had the most peculiar feeling. Because I’d been so productive during the week, and because I’d ticked so many things off the old to-do list, I had the feeling that I had actually, like…doing everything I needed to do. I didn’t feel a strong need to write anything, or to carry any project forward. So I mostly tried to play around. I wrote a few fragments–I looked at an art book I’ve been neglecting (for another 19th-century French painter, James Tissot)–I leafed through some art books. I don’t know, I’m still thinking about where to go with my future writing projects. I think I was actually profoundly affected by The Canterbury Tales, I loved the relatively simple language and the eerie, rhythmic power that came from the procession of rhyming couplets. It made me think, you know, maybe there is something to this idea that you can have a sentence–one that seems otherwise quite ordinary–which carries additional power due to its particular mixture of sounds. I’ve been using a lot more internal rhymes in my prose lately, but I think the effect isn’t quite right–it falls into the uncanny valley between prose and verse, where you’re constantly tripped up and distracted by the rhyming.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? No project can be carried forward any substantial distance in a single day.

I would love to rediscover the ability to play. I remember once upon a time I was very taken with this idea that you can simply sit down and write anything you want. With a few words, you can be an Ancient Roman transported to outer space to discuss politics with squid aliens. Incidentally, nobody represents this ability better than Jo Walton. What a champion. What other human being would write a book where a bunch of people, including Marcus Tullius Cicero and Socrates, are ripped from their own times–and assigned the task of creating a real-life version of Plato’s Republic. I wish I could do something like that! But I fear I’d simply get bored of any novel written on such bizarre terms. Still, I want to be able to walk through whatever gate it is that stops me from writing that kind of nutty stuff.

And that’s my blog post.

Virtual Reality and also Shakespeare

Hello friendly friends, I had many ideas for bold and substantive blog posts, but find myself with no desire to write them, so I’ll just do what I always do, which is that I start typing and see what happens.

One outgrowth of having my new office is that I’ve been experimenting with the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset that I, along with a bunch of other people, bought during the pandemic. For a long time, I only had a tiny swathe of floor in the bedroom to use as a VR environment, and it wasn’t really working. Here, I have slightly more room–not really as much as you need, but a workable amount. So yeah, I’ve been playing a few games. I beat Superhot–a bullet-time shooter where the enemies and the bullets only move when you do. I’ve been playing a lot of Pistol Whip–a rhythm game disguised as a shooter. And I recently booted up Vader Immortal and Arizona Sunshine–immerse VR experiences where the focus is more on making you feel like you’re really an evil Jedi or really in the zombie-ridden Arizona desert.

And I have to say…VR is pretty cool. It’s a little astonishing how far the technology has come. Like, there’s definitely room for improvement–VR environments aren’t really as crisp as playing a game on a screen (much less real life). But the sense of reality is overwhelming. The game really does trick your brain into feeling like the objects in space are there, that they’re in the room with you. Yes they’re blobby, and they don’t look like anything in real life, but they have an undeniable physical presence. And the headache factor is also reduced (I think it could be reduced even more if the headset wasn’t a bit heavy and poorly balanced, so it weighs a bit on your brow). I also play while wearing glasses! I have a feeling it’d look even better if I used contacts.

It’s pretty special! Personally, I think VR is great. I don’t see how spending ten hours in VR is any worse than spending ten hours looking at our tiny phone or computer screens. I do think, well, it won’t happen today, and it won’t happen tomorrow, but in ten years this technology will be here. We’ll have the treadmills, we’ll have the gloves, we’ll be able to mimic the feeling of walking through an endlessly variable and life-like environment. And it’ll provide employment too. So far as I can tell, it’s immensely labor-intensive to create a VR environment. To do it right, you need buildings full of coders and graphics specialists.

I mean, the dystopia is here. We’re crammed into tiny houses and apartments. The sky outside is smoky and unbreathable (we’ve had red skies for the past few days in SF), and the temperature will be increasingly unlivable in many parts of the world. Might as well have VR while we’re at it!

Ummmmmmmm…in more analog news, I’ve been reading more Shakespeare. My issue with Shakespeare has always been the ornate, flowery language and the contrived, arbitrary storytelling. But there’s a definite difference between mediocre Shakespeare and good Shakespeare. For instance, I’ve been reading the history plays. I read Henry VI p2 and p3 earlier in the year. They were fine. Nothing to write home about. But I just read Henry IV p1. I already knew I’d like the play, since I’ve seen it performed before, but it’s really special! I was highly impressed by the subtle characterizations and the finely-modulated language.

For one thing, it’s the first Shakespeare play I’ve read, at least recently, that contains long prose passages: Falstaff, Bardo, Poins, and all the low company speak in prose. Prince Hal speaks in prose when he’s with them, and he speaks in verse when he’s with higher companions. He’s the best character, in my opinion, far surpassing Falstaff (who can be tedious at times), since you can sense how conflicted he is, such as when he delivers a slightly condescending and yet, in some sense sincere, oration over Falstaff’s body when he thinks the man has died.

What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spar’d a better man.
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity
Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
Embowell’d will I see thee by and by,
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.

In the version of the play I saw, they played Prince Hal as a schemer–someone who was always planning to cast off his poor companions and become a wise and stern King. But reading the play I see that there’s room for other interpretations. Personally, I favor the reading that he’s just genuinely someone who’s drawn to jokes and to low company, but who also longs for a chance to prove himself.

But the other characters in the play are equally well-drawn. I thought the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwyr stole the show. That guy comes off totally nuts! At one point he’s talking to Harry Percy, and Owain is like, bro, when I was born, the earth quaked and the heavens quailed. And Harry Percy (Hotspur), who is Prince Hal’s foil throughout the play (and is finally killed by him), refuses to take this, and he’s like, if the earth shook, it was just by chance, and if the heavens quailed, it was because they were scared by the earth’s shaking, not because of you. And Glyndwyr is like…bro, I can do MAGIC. He’s so irrepressible. What a card!

And even the wild storytelling has charm. I kind of like the undisciplined way Shakespeare told this story. For instance, Glyndwyr basically only shows up in one scene! This is a very common Shakespeare thing–to have someone come in and be a really big personality and get set up for a long role, and then he’s gone. During the big battle, Glyndwyr simply doesn’t show up. Also, at some point in the fourth act, Harry Percy and his rebels realize, essentially, that they have very little chance of winning. It’s a cunning trick! Normally you’d ramp up the tension by making Prince Hal’s side seem outmatched. Here, though, Percy is such a strong character that you feel sorry for him, especially since the audience knew from the start of the play he was going to die. And it allows you to focus more on the human element: will Prince Hal prove himself? What happens when the two Harry’s finally meet?

Even the language felt much more disciplined than in the earlier Henry plays (Henry VI p2 and p3 were written before Henry IV). Hotspur spoke in a much more direct, plain register. The King ranged between a higher and a lower diction. All of the characters clearly had moments when they were speaking ex cathedra–speaking in the full awareness of their high authority–and moments when they were speaking in camera, as private individuals. I thought the restraint played up Shakespeare’s talents.

Shakespeare is an excellent writer, but I don’t think he is merely an excellent poet. At his best, he wrote character who were full of life–people who could sustain multiple interpretations. The earlier Henry plays didn’t really have that. Even their most interesting characters, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, seemed a bit more on the one-note side.

But maybe I shouldn’t be judging Shakespeare by the lower half of his ouevre! The problem is I’ve already read all the better plays! And I read them long before my judgement and critical abilities had matured. Like, I haven’t revisited Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Midsummer, or Julius Caesar since school. And I read Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Macbeth, As You Like It, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado during my last Shakespeare phase, almost ten years ago. I think it’s probably time to revisit them all. Maybe in virtual reality.

Home office

Before we had a baby, I mostly worked at the kitchen counter. I like the kitchen counter. You get a nice high hard seat, so no back pain. You’ve got a much wider and broader surface than any desk. You’ve got ready access to snacks and drinks and cups. The lighting is good. If you’re frustrated you can flop onto the couch. The only downside to the kitchen counter is you’re right in the middle of the house.

Having a baby coincided with the start of the pandemic and with our mother in law living with us for twelve months, so the house went from empty all the time to being really full. As a result, I mostly worked in the bedroom for a year. It was…not optimal. Decidedly on the non-optimal side of the equation is what I’d say. My wife didn’t have it much better–she outfitted a 5 x 8 foot closet upstairs (I believe those are the literal dimensions) as her office. The bedroom had its perks. You’re in bed, so it’s easy to nap. The light is good. The cat sometimes hangs out with you.

Negative was that there’s no room in our bedroom for a desk or a chair, so I was working on the bed (and sometimes on our yoga ball). You’re also in bed, so it’s easy to get sleepy. My back pain, which I’d conquered in physical therapy two years ago, returned and became troubling. I also just felt kind of hemmed in, spending almost my entire life in a fairly small space.

In April my mother in law moved out, freeing up the guest room, and although it took me some time I’ve finally gotten around to fitting up a corner of the room as an office. It’s great! It’s so amazing! I used to dislike the guest room because the ceiling is low, the stairs to get down here are cramped and narrow (I’ve fallen down them three times), and the floors are a shiny, cheap-looking laminate. But now, especially in the summer-warm, it’s a paradise. The basement actually gets plenty of light because we have French doors that look out onto the back yard. It’s quite cool when the heat is off, but when the heat is on it can get very warm because there’s a vent direct to the furnace.

And it’s so isolated! There’s no just dropping in on you down here. The baby is screaming in her room right now, and it feels so distant. Even my wife, god bless her, only texts me if she needs me. It feels totally removed from the rest of my life.

I leave my laptop down here 100 percent of the time now, hooked up to an external monitor, with a wireless keyboard and mouse always hooked up as well. They’re also connected to this powerline internet setup that everyone else in the household dislikes, and which never seems to work well for them (wireless in our house is finicky, so we’re always trying to find work-arounds), but which has been quite fast enough for me. I suspect the difference is I almost never take video calls, so if it cuts out for a few seconds, I don’t even notice.

It’s great. It’s so great. I have some office supplies down here: pens, paper-clips, etc. There’s a waste-basket. I’m gonna get a small electric goose-neck kettle so I can do pour-over coffee without going upstairs. It’s so great.

And another good thing is you can also leave! Like sometimes I write my two thousand words for the day, and I’m like what now? Well, I can just get up and go upstairs. Be gone. Be elsewhere. It’s very freeing.

Downsides: it’s one more place to leave things. It gets annoying to want a book or a notebook and to find I’ve left it in the basement. I’ve addressed the stair problem by only wearing socks that have little rubber grips on the bottom, but I do still sometimes fear I’ll fall and die on the narrow stairs. And although our dog is content to visit me here, the cat almost never comes down, and even when he does appear it’s only for a peek: way too cold down here for him to stay. Other than that, it’s perfect. I have no complaints.

Oh wait, and of course if we have guests I need to leave! This hasn’t occurred yet, but it will, intermittently. Earlier this year the keyboard on my computer was broken for a month, and I composed entirely on my iPad, which actually worked out okay, so I think I might just leave the whole computing setup here and work on the iPad for the length of any visit. But we’ll see.