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
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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
Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

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?

View full post

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.

Assorted reflections on chaucer and medieval life

Hello friends. Obviously, I’m procrastinating by writing to you. I finished reading the Tah-lehs of Cahn-ta-buh-rie a few days ago (that’s how I hear it in my head, and I sometimes say the words “Here beginneth the tales of Canterbury” to myself for no reason whatsoever). It was excellent. Highly recommend. Beautiful writing–very earthy, connected to the language of ordinary people–only intermittently ornate–with a large variety of tales and characters. Some boring stuff in there, but that’s to be expected. Very difficult to read initially, but by the end I rarely resorted to the on-page glosses in the (IMHO) excellent and readable Penguin Classics original-spelling edition. If you’re looking to spend two months reading one book, I highly recommend this over Ulysses. If you want to spend two months reading one book (for a very loose definition of one) here are my recommendations, in order:

  1. Remembrance of Things Past (I’ve read both major translations, the Enright / Monckrieff and the new ones, and they’re both fine).
  2. The Canterbury Tales
  3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  4. The Story of the Stone / Dream of the Red Chamber (I read this translation)
  5. Ulysses
  6. The Tale of Genji (I read this translation, which is also just a beautifully bound volume)
  7. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I read this translation)

Obviously you should read War and Peace, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and Anna Karenina before reading any of these, but those books aren’t difficult–they’re just long, and if you don’t find them compulsively readable, then it’s probably not the right time for them yet. But the five above are always, imho, gonna be difficult, both because they’re very long and none of them are traditional narratives, at least as we understood narrative to function in contemporary America. The closest thing in there to a novel is probably Ulysses, but it’s just really difficult to read, and there are large sections, particularly the Oxen of the Sun chapter, that are simply unintelligible even to a well-read and highly-educated reader.

The point is I read it, the book is read. Not sure what I’m going to do next. I’ve been trying to learn to speak French. I downloaded this online flash-card system that will quiz me on the five thousand most commonly used words in French (with twenty new ones every day), and I’ve been testing my comprehension by reading two books:

  • This bilingual edition of the maxims of Rochuefoucauld. I cover the English and try to mentally translate the French. Kind of great because they’re so pithy that if there’s even one word you don’t get, you lose the whole meaning.
  • A book that shall remain nameless, because it’s highly unpopular amongst most of my friends, but which I know extremely well due to repeated childhood (and adult) re-readings. I have the French audiobook and I listen to it while reading along with the French translation.

It’s really, really, really unsystematic. Or, rather, it’s a system, but it’s not a very efficient one. And I am fine with that. It’s a hobby.

I have maybe five or six things that I’m part-way through. I’m halfway through a podcast about neolithic humans. It’s only okay, but there’s shockingly little out there about this, especially in audio, so it’s good to have. I’ve been reading Ben Johnson’s play from the Elizabeth era, Volpone, about a dude who pretends to be wealthy and on the brink of death and profits from all the gifts people give him to convince him to adopt them as his heir.

During his life, Ben Johnson was more famous than Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, he was widely hailed for his learning–he was a playwright who was also an intellectual. He composed the first English-language dictionary. Can you imagine how well-read a person must have to be to write the first dictionary a language has ever had? And he’s not a bad writer either! But very few people read him nowadays, which has served for me as a kind of memento mori. This is a guy who was more famous than Shakespeare. People could go see Hamlet performed for the first time, and then they could sit around in the tavern and be like, but you know what? That Shakespeare is no Ben Johnson.

And now he’s on the verge of being written out of the canon. Which is fine. But it makes you think! Nothing lasts. It’s all written on water. Insert other Stoic cliches here. I’ve also been reading so much about Central Asia, and there are entire cities–entire civilizations–that were the greatest on Earth: Merv, in Turkmenistan, the seat of the Great Seljuk Empire, was the largest city on the planet for a while there. And now I doubt a lot of people know about it. Even if people know the names of some of the figures who lived there–Omar Khayyam is the most known in the west–they think of him as having lived in what’s now Iran. And they mostly know him as a poet, not a mathematician (an area where he was even more accomplished). That was more than 900 years ago.

The people of Merv thought they were at the center of the world. Theirs was the height of civilization at the time. Now it’s all gone. Just makes you think! We are not, right now, at this moment, living at the end of history. There will probably be human beings living on this planet in a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand years. But they probably won’t be speaking English. They may not be Christian or Muslim or any current religion (Zoroastrianism and animism were still major religions in Merv at the time I’m speaking of!) They might be more technologically advanced than us, but they also might not. Our modern era is dramatically different from any era that came before, but so was the Seljuk Empire–for the first time in history, influences from China, India, and the West were mingling in one place. They were living in a place that had been at the center of world affairs for two millennia. They may have had good reason to think the future would be a straight line upwards. Who knows?

I’m afraid of global warming. It seems undeniable that it will, all else equal, result in a substantial degradation of standard of living for every person on the planet. I don’t think it’ll render the Earth uninhabitable, though I know some people do think that, and not without reason. When I was younger, I believed strongly in progress–the idea that a hundred years in the future, life would be unimaginably different. I don’t know if I believe in that anymore. And when I think of what in our current culture that would feel unimaginably different to people from Merv, I don’t think of TV or the internet or cars–all of that would be understandable. I mean people come off the steppes, like the Mongols, and they’ve never seen a stone building, and within a generation they’ve fully adapted to urban life–it’s not that hard to understand.

Honestly, the thing they’d find most difficult to understand would probably be the legal equality of women and all the familial changes that are a result (low birth-rates, unmarried sex, high divorce rates, etc). But even that is an idea with a very long provenance. Chaucer is full of arguments about the abilities of women. Medieval schollars called it the “querelle du femme”–the debate over whether women had abilities equal to those of men. People came down on both sides of the debate (Chaucer was clearly pro-woman), so if someone from the middle ages came to modern times, they’d probably be like, oh, okay, so that’s how it all panned out. They might be disgusted, as visitors often are when they see the familial workings of different peoples, but I don’t know if they’d be confused.

Hard to say! But I don’t know, as I read more and more about history, and as I read older works, from more diverse cultures, I just see more continuity than discontinuity with the past. Sometime in the 20th century, scholars got really into the idea that consciousness is somehow radically different today than it used to be. They’re like, “Love is a modern invention”. “The self is a modern invention”. “Adolescence is a modern invention”. But are they really? I mean if love is a modern invention, why was Chariton writing in the first century about people falling in love and being separated? If the self is modern, then what was St. Augustine doing writing an autobiography? If adolescence is uniquely modern, then what was an apprenticeship period in medieval times? When apprentices get described, they sure sound a lot like teenagers to me! We’re not unique. Having air conditioners and computers doesn’t make us unique. It makes us comfortable, but not unique.

But let’s not overstate the case. Obviously being alive now is radically different from being alive even three hundred years ago, much less in 12th century Uzbekistan. Just trying to say that there’s continuity, and that history is going to continue. There will be people, in a thousand years, who will probably spend absolutely zero time thinking about us and our civilization.

Almost done reading Chaucer

Hello friends, life continues to be good. Rachel has a grant due, so I spent a lot of the weekend taking care of the world’s most adorable baby. I will say one thing you’ve got to get used to once you’re a baby-haver is that you don’t get much writing done on the weekend. I used to be like, there is no difference between weekend and week–I’d sit down to write just the same. It’s not like that anymore.

Work continues apace. We have childcare, so I get a lot done during the work week–probably as much or more as I got done before there was a baby. But one does miss the sense of luxury–of being like, wow, I have ALL this time to do ALL the things that need doing.

Like now it’s Monday, and I know that there are forty hours (plus maybe three or four in the evening every day after Leni goes to bed), to do all the stuff, including finishing my book that’s under contract and doing every other thing that needs doing in the household.

Reading remains a big priority for me. I think one of my biggest worries about baby-having was that there would be no time to read. It wasn’t an unreasonable worry. Last year I read half as many books as I did the year before. But this year I have already exceeded last year’s total, so I’ll probably end up somewhere between the two years.

I’m finishing Chaucer. I finally decided to cut bait on the appallingly boring prose tale in the middle–the tale of Melibee–and I’ll probably not read the prose Parson’s tale at the end. I already skipped the Knight’s tale, because it’s the longest, and a previous attempt to read the Canterbury tales foundered on its length. Nonetheless, I am proud of me for making it through like seventy percent of the book, in the original spelling, too. It’s probably been the most difficult reading experience of my life, but also the most rewarding. My comprehension is much higher now than when I began, and it’s nice to feel like you’re working with the author rather than struggling against him (as I did with Ulysses).

If I had the money, I’d make an abridged middle-english version of the book that cuts out all the really boring parts, but if you ever want to know what to skip, you should basically skip any part that deals with honor or chivalry. So skip: The Knight’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, the Tale of Melibee, and possibly the Prioress’s Tale (which is interesting but really antisemitic). There are lots of good tales in there though! The Miller, Reeve, Clerk, Wife of Bath, Summoner, and Friar form a suite early on that’s gold. Chaucer is really at his best when he tells tales of contemporary society. My favorite was the Wife of Bath, who is incredible. She is just so special. I want to meet her and be her friend. You can feel her just coming to life.

The Friar’s tale (about a corrupt venal summoner who tries to befriend the devil) is also gold.

I’ve been reading Xenophon’s Socratic Dialogues too. I have to say, people who are like, these are not the equal of Plato, are really missing the point. Plato was a philosopher. He used the character of Socrates to expound a bunch of ideas that in some cases built on Socrates’ ideas but in other cases were Plato’s own. Xenophon was, if anything, a historian (although I’d say he was more like a proto-novelist). He just wanted to tell some stories about Socrates! That’s why his stories are much more anchored in concrete detail and in a sense of place and time and overall milieu. That’s also why his Socrates is at times less witty and sure-footed. It’s precisely that quality that makes him feel more alive. I’ve read many of Plato’s Dialogues, but it was only after reading Xenophon’s that I actually believed Socrates might’ve once existed.

Finally, I’ve gotten really into Central Asian history. There aren’t many books on this subject (at least on audible), but the ones that do exist are really good! By far the best have been Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which essentially tells the history of Eurasia as a history of trade between East and West, and the one I’m reading now, Lost Enlightment by S. Frederick Starr, which talks about the Central Asian renaissance that gave us Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Ferdawsi, and scores of other renowned thinkers. I have to say, after listening to this book, I was like…I had no idea Afghanistan was such a historically important place! For like two thousand years, Afghanistan was a center of learning and civilization. Uzbekistan too! I’ll never take Central Asia for granted again.

I also liked A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy, but that book overlaps with the other two a bit, and I think it’s mostly just good because the subject matter–Iran itself–is so rich.

Oh, and finally I’ve been writing my trans YA novel (already sold, coming out under the title JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE in Summer 23 probably). It’s going really well. You know how when you’re feeling burned out people are like, "You should just take a break", and then you’re like, "Wait I’m supposed to just not work for an indeterminate period of time?" Well, writing this book is like taking that break.

I’ve had ups and downs. As soon as I post this blog, I need to go downstairs to my office (I’ve created an office in the guest room where my mother in law was until recently staying) and delete three or four chapters, but I’ve just felt so much less pressure about it. I think having sold the book, far from adding to my pressure, actually feels good! Because I know the industry enough now to know that I can definitely deliver on what I’ve promised, which means that the details, the execution, feel totally at my own discretion. I also have gotten a let better at storytelling, and now that I’ve written my literary novel, I’m feeling less precious about my work for kids, which has, I think, been to its benefit! But I guess you’ll find out when the final product comes out–if it comes out (something could always happen to derail the process) in two years.

Lost Enlightenment | Princeton University Press

Transitioning Continues Apace

I don’t think I’ve ever posted here about my trans stuff, because it’s not terribly interesting. I’ve gone slowly because, you know, I have a wife and a baby, but my marriage remains extremely healthy and wonderful (today is our fourth wedding anniversary!) Rachel is basically one of the best humans who has ever lived: transitioning is a lot easier when you’re married to one of the best humans who has ever lived; everything is easier, in fact.

I had a blood clot, which interrupted my hormone treatment and made me kinda depressed, but now I’m back on them (in patch form, which theoretically doesn’t cause clots)! Apparently I have heterozygous factor 5 leiden deficiency, which has something to do with clot risk.

Anyway, being back on the hormones is great. I feel incredible. I’m definitely more tired, and I feel wiped out if I don’t get eight hours of sleep, particularly a few days in a row. But, oddly enough, during the time I’m awake, I feel more energized, and I feel much more desire to, like, do things, be productive, make something of myself. I started my Old and Middle English studies around the time I went back on hormones, and I’m sure the sense of optimism and confidence are directly related to the hormones somehow.

It’s kind of astonishing how good it’s been. I probably should’ve gone on sooner. If my experience is a guide, then people who are wondering if they’re trans should just go on hormones and see if they feel way, way better. It’s amazing. Seriously. Anyway, I still feel weird and awkward a lot of the time. It takes a fair amount of effort with makeup to efface my facial hair (laser treatments were interrupted by the pandemic), so most days I don’t bother, but then I feel kind of weird going out in public, to the dog park or playground, where I might interact with people.

I do intermittently have the feeling–hard to describe–of gender consonance, when I feel like I’ve briefly landed on the other shore, and my self-image shifts, and I’m like, “Yes, I am a woman!” Not sure about other trans women, but for me there’s a lot of “Fake it till you make it.” Ideally I’d like to wake up each day, and not think about being trans! To just be whatever I am: a person with female pronouns who is definitely not a man and who certainly would like to be thought of as a woman. But I’m not really there yet.

I’ve been taking voice lessons for almost two years, which has been really productive. For me it’s been most fruitful to have several months between lessons. That makes me feel less like I need to practice and show progress. Instead I can just remind myself to slowly bring my voice to where it needs to be as I go through my day. You make a lot of progress without realizing it! During my last voice lesson I tried to bring my voice into what I consider my ‘normal’ range (the range I talk in without thinking about it) and found it wasn’t actually normal. I don’t speak in the unambiguously male register anymore. Right now I’m somewhere in between, but hoping to make further progress.

I think if you’re single, or a teenager, or if transitioning entailed losing your family, your job, your home, as it does with many (most?) trans women, there is a lot of pressure to make progress quickly and get to the point where you can live recognizably as a woman. For me there’s less pressure, and sometimes I feel bad, and I think, wow I am that conservative bugbear: the tall, balding, bearded man who croaks “I identify as a woman” as he washes his hands in the women’s bathroom.

There’s also a temptation to live a lot of life online. I’ve been taking part more in Facebook Groups and such, because there I’m unmoored even from my author identity: I’m just a mom, or just an SF resident. And it’s nice to ‘pass’. Twitter doesn’t provide the same opportunity, because my author identity is still linked to my old male identity, and my first book is still published under my birth name (though, actually, maybe I should talk to Little, Brown about that…)

But my broader point is, many trans women find that the time you’re ‘in transition’ is lonely, empty, and uncomfortable–something you aim to get through as quickly as possible. You want to get out the other side and get to where you’re going to be, find the limits of what’s physically possible, and then come to terms with your final physical form.

For me it’s been a much slower process. I’ve tended to focus on just one aspect of my transition at a time: for a while it was my voice, now it’s moved on to other things. At any point I feel like there’s a bottleneck that’s holding the rest back, and that there’s no point in working on the rest until I break the bottleneck. It’s an ongoing process, and I don’t tend to view the time I’ve spent transitioning (which has been some of the happiest and most productive of my life) as being unhappy or wasted.

I was writing a lot of trans woman characters in the years before I transitioned, and now I write them almost exclusively. It’s odd, being trans, because in some times and places the influence of your transness on peoples’ behavior is quite subtle, while in other times and places, they react totally differently–they see you as just a trans person. Since I still go out presenting as a man sometimes, I experience a wide variety of reactions (none of which have felt overtly dangerous). And then there’s the influence of your own discomfort, your own sense of feeling out of place. It’s impossible to tell what percentage of social weirdness is in your head and what isn’t. I tend to assume that everyone in all situations can read me as trans, but that’s clearly not true–as in a recent restaurant when a woman started telling me about her really tall daughter in law and her tall grand-children (I was holding our baby). In cases like that, being trans plays no part at all, because the other person doesn’t even know.

Generally, being trans, I’ve found, and have seen in other trans women’s stories, tends to matter more in your more intimate relationships. It’s not as big a deal when you’re walking on the street: it’s a bigger deal at work, or when you’re walking into someone’s house or making a new friend. It’s certainly an interesting topic for fiction, and one I’ve enjoyed exploring.

My writing isn’t just, or even primarily, my own experience. While the feelings are mine, and they reflect a range and a complexity that you often don’t see when cis people write trans protagonists, the situations run the gamut, and they’re often fully-imaginary, coming totally from my own head and my own intuitions about how people would react in various situations.

I say this because, well, when I write trans characters, I don’t really claim to be representative of anyone’s experience–not even of my own. All I can say is that these situations, in these books, with these characters, are true. I am utterly certain that these things could happen. These people would act these ways. I cannot say that in other, similar, situations people wouldn’t act completely differently. Fiction isn’t sociology. You’re not describing ‘how things tend to happen’. You’re saying how things ‘could’ happen.

If I was the kind of person who was interested in calling out or policing other peoples’ books, maybe I’d feel more worried about making my own books more completely representative–but I’m not. I refuse to do sensitivity reads for other authors. So far as I know, I’ve never called out another book for appropriating one of ‘my’ identities. I tend to think that the whole human experience belong equally to every human being, and although for now I’m not interested in writing people who aren’t Indian trans girls and women, I really don’t care if someone else wants to write them too. I think knowing that I give other people the freedom to ‘get it wrong’ also gives me the mental freedom to write whatever I want.