What’s Weird

This Sunday, I glanced out the

A perfectly normal carrot

kitchen window and noted with pleasure that the sun had come out. It was also snowing fairly heavily. I turned back to the turkey I was stuffing only to realize that I’d lived in New Mexico long enough that heavy snowfall combined with bright sunshine no longer seemed worthy of comment.

What’s weird depends largely on your expectations.

 Back when I was still teaching at Lynchburg College in Virginia, Roger Zelazny came as a guest speaker. I’d told my students they could have extra credit for attending the lecture and writing me a short essay about it. What fascinated me when I read those essays is that every single one of these students mentioned that Roger was wearing jewelry. That jewelry wasn’t extensive – a silver belt buckle and a silver ring, as I recall – but to my students, mostly products of the East Coast, many from New England or New York, a man wearing any ornamentation other than a plain gold wedding ring was worthy of comment.

I’ve lived in the southwest for over fifteen years now and I’ll admit that when I fly East I watch as the idea of normal shifts. Facial hair on men begins to vanish (whereas here the majority of my male friends wear at least a mustache, usually with a short beard). Jewelry on men goes away and even the wedding rings get thinner. Women’s clothing becomes more homogenous and more conventionally “feminine.” Jewelry becomes less individualistic.

 “Normal” isn’t restricted to appearance, of course. Several years ago, Jim and I took my mom to a Western Regional Science Fiction convention (Westercon). I was tickled by how Mom enjoyed herself. She appreciated the work that had gone into the costumes. She was interested in the panel discussions. However, as we were touring the Art Show, she commented, “Some of these pieces are really beautiful, but I can’t see hanging them in my home.” I had to chuckle because, of course, among many of the people I spend time with, science fiction and fantasy themed art is what is “normal,” while the type of pictures my mom has in her home (I especially like the one of the bird in her family room) would be considered “not normal.”

Equally, different environments can make continuing practices that were “normal” a very bad idea. When I started gardening in New Mexico, a friend told me, “You’re used to setting your plants on little hills so they don’t get drowned. Here we put them in hollows so they get enough water.” I thought she was crazy. I rapidly learned she was right – and every year when I dig those hollows for my plants I remember and laugh.

 Comfort in shifting between perceptions of normal is important for any writer, but I think especially so for those of us who write science fiction and fantasy. When I was writing the Firekeeper books, I learned to slip into the mind set of someone for whom cooked meat was weird and shoes a burden. More importantly, since the books had several points of view, I had to be able to slip into the perspective of a young man who was a bit shy of the aristocracy with whom he now found himself associating, then into that of a young woman for whom that same aristocracy were family and friends.

What’s weird? What’s normal? All a matter of perspective. And playing with shifting perspective is something I have come to love.

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7 Responses to “What’s Weird”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    Another perspective change: color sense.

    I remember talking with Snail (sorry, I’ve forgotten her ‘dane name), Artist GOH at Bubonicon one year. She told us about taking her portfolio back East, and not getting a very good reception. Finally one gallery owner told her why. He had immediately picked up on the “you’re not from around here” vibe and commented on it. She asked him, “Huh? What do you mean?” He said, “Look at your paintings. They’re brown. Look around here. The world is green.”

    After that conversation, I realized that I had lived in NM long enough that I now really appreciated how many different browns I saw around me each day, and how beautiful they could be.

    Dunno how to mess around with someone’s head because of this one, though.

  2. Dominique Says:

    What you say is so true. I dealt with it traveling between the parents as a kid. Even the short distance from California to New Mexico. I was always shifting from metropolitan city to tiny desert town. Like you say though, it can be fun. Something new and different.

  3. Debbie Says:

    You know, I moved from Ohio to California in ’78. In 2002. When I first move out there, I was enthusiastic about the Mexican and Chinese cultures I saw. So new, so different. But, as the years went by, Mrs. Tran grinding flour out back with 2 stones was normal, not exotic anymore. Then we bought a house in the Fruitvale section of Oakland, where the Mexicans lived. I got tired of speaking Spanish when I walked out my front door. I remember saying to my then-husband, “Can’t they speak something normal, like Polish or Russian?”

    I moved back to Ohio, and only occasionally have to use my Slovak now. It’s not what it was, and, if I go to Painesville, or further south, I find I have to speak Spanish again.

    New and different can become routine and boring. Just some thoughts.

  4. starrshadow Says:

    Sorry, moved back to Ohio in 2002. I plead weak coffee.

  5. Ann Nalley Says:

    The year I lived in England, my perspective of “normal” was completely turned on its head! The students with whom I went to college would drink like crazy each night after doing their work ~ go to class the next day ~ and get excellent grades. The idea that drinking was an excuse to be too hung over to go to class never occurred to them. There were many other more basic cultural differences, such as the absence of garlic in day to day cooking, the preference for walking rather than riding in a vehicle, tea vs. coffee, etc. Being exposed to cultural shifts shakes me out of my comfort zone ~ being too comfortable is probably not too healthy!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I’m originally from England, though these days I live in New Zealand — very similar countries with very similar habits. The first time I attended a science fiction convention in America, I was astonished (and horrified) at how teetotal the thing was. Everybody was drinking soft drinks; even the room parties had baths full of ice with cans of coke peering shyly up at the world. Bizarre! At English SF cons most people were permanently pissed (that’s English slang for “drunk” by the way, rather than the American slang for “angry”) and on more than one occasion, after drinking all night, I’d go into breakfast with a pint of beer in my hand.

      Once I was driving home from a con. I’d moderated my drinking because I was the driver, but my friend Howard had been drinking solidly for 4 days and hadn’t had any sleep either. He slouched in the passanger seat and said:

      “Have my arms fallen off? I can’t feel them any more.”

      I glanced over at him.

      “No — your arms are still there,” I said.

      About 200 miles later he said:

      “Good.”

      As you so very rightly say, the cultural differences in small things like this are sometimes quite astonishing.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Actually, when I was in grad school for ecology, we read something called “the eyes paper” because the figures used a stylized human eye to show how studying systems at different scales gave different results. So it works in the sciences too.

    Of course, point of view can be problematic. To cite two examples: I happen to know someone who is a pharmacist, and I persuaded her to read an urban fantasy where one of the characters was a pharmacist. She liked the book well enough to get the sequel, but her comment was that the writer obviously didn’t know much about pharmacies, because the character was doing things that a pharmacy technician would do, not a full-on pharmacist. I’ve known her long enough to understand (kind of) what she means, but I do know that I’d have her proof-read any pharmacy characters I wrote, if I ever try that particular perspective.

    In a similar vein, the (obviously eastern) author of a book on writing extolled a passage about fall in the hills of southern California, about how realistic it was, and how it drew him into the scene. Now, I grew up in the hills he was talking about, and to me, fall is *Fire Season,* not that gorgeous time when the leaves turn colors and the air gets cool that he was extolling for its realism. It took me a while to pick up that particular book again, and fortunately, that was the only major gaffe he made, and he had a lot of other good advice.

    Still I think there’s a particular problem in modern fantasy. If an author doesn’t do a god-awful amount of research, they have trouble with getting the perspective right, and there are a lot of different perspectives out there.

    Fun post though!

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