Archive for April, 2011

I See…

April 27, 2011

Wolf In Specs

As of a week or so ago, I became the owner of two pairs of (different) prescription eyeglasses and one pair of contact lens. I also have a set of non-prescription reading glasses. My life is defined by which of these I wear when, as well as by how many cases, bottles of various fluids, and the like I need to remember when I’m doing whatever.

Sheesh!

I’m not complaining. (Okay. I’m complaining, but only a little). I mean, I live in a day and age when my vision problems can be corrected. My vision is so bad that if it couldn’t be corrected, I’d be joining the ranks of “Blind Lemon Jefferson” and all those visually-impaired musicians whose career choices were often dictated by their inability to see.

No wonder so many of them sang the blues.

An interesting side-note is that in a day and age before affordable prescription lens, “blind” didn’t always mean “total inability to see” as is the case today, but what we would call “severely visually impaired.”

I started wearing glasses when I was eight years old. It was a traumatic experience. I went from a mental image of myself as someone who could do anything anywhere, to being the kid in glasses. I remember being told to be careful what I did or I would break my glasses. I guess I must have broken them one too many times, because there are a lot of pictures of me with glasses mended with tape.

For a while, my eyes grew worse year to year, making me wonder how long before I didn’t have any vision left.

Moreover, as anyone who has ever read fiction knows (and even at that tender age, I had read a lot), the kid in glasses is always second string. Harry Potter is the first glasses-wearing kid I can think of who played lead. All the rest were seconds: the clumsy kid, the bookish best friend, the sincere but not very attractive girl who organizes the school events but never gets a date.

Wearing glasses recast my mental image of myself – and not for the better. When we went swimming, I couldn’t see the balls and frisbees being tossed around, so I didn’t play those games. Sports? Forget it. No one picks the kid with glasses. Even gym teachers sneer. Jump-rope was really popular. I couldn’t see well enough to jump in and out.

When I was fifteen, my parents offered to get me contact lenses. Despite the limitations – there’s a special agony involved when you get sand or dirt under a hard contact lens – I was thrilled. The change couldn’t have come at a better time, since high school is when dating becomes a big issue. Everyone knows that, as Dorothy Parker said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” I didn’t want passes, as such, but I sure didn’t want to be a wallflower.

Contact lens took me out of a prison of my own mental making. I didn’t wear glasses for the next couple of decades. If I couldn’t wear my contacts, I just felt around. I’m a whiz at navigating by memory.

Then age conspired to put me back in the cage. Somewhere in my forties, Jim noticed that I was having trouble wearing my contacts for as many hours at a time. He coaxed me into getting a pair of glasses for late hours. I finally gave in but, seriously, I would have rather walked into a lion cage stark naked than start wearing glasses again.

For years after, how comfortable I felt with a person could be defined by whether I’d wear my glasses in front of them. I’ve gotten better about it. You no longer need to be a blood relation to see me wearing glasses.

It doesn’t help my unwillingness to wear glasses, rather than contact lens, that glasses don’t correct my vision sufficiently for me to want to wear them for many activities. I have so little peripheral vision I wouldn’t drive wearing my glasses unless it was a matter of life or death.

This last year I’ve begun to edge into the bifocal zone. The impairment isn’t bad enough that my doctor wants to do bifocals proper, but I need separate glasses for distance, mid-range, and close-up. Joy! For a variety of reasons, eye surgery isn’t an option I want to entertain until I have no other choice. It’s tempting but, with new improvements coming every day, I think I’ll wait.

How very nice to have the option. How very, very nice to no longer feel I’m destined to someday be “Blind Jane.”

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What Is Art?

April 20, 2011

The arrival from Utah of our friends Julie, Kenny, and Nora gave Jim and me

At Museum Hill

an excuse to spend a day in Santa Fe. Since Nora is only two and a half, we decided that a good place to go was the International Folk Art Museum on the aptly named Museum Hill.

(By the way, the photo is of a statue out on the plaza between the museums. It’s huge – at least fifteen feet high).

Although there are several side galleries, the heart and soul of the Folk Art Museum is an enormous room filled with cases holding a vast and eclectic collection of toys and dioramas. Although many are handmade, not all are.

One of my favorite cases features a street scene composed of different model houses vaguely on the same scale. While some are clearly handmade, others were obviously originally for sale at the five and dime stores of yesteryear. Various vehicles populate the streets, including, to my great amusement, a couple of Breyer horse models still occasionally brought back into production.

So what made this collection Art? Was it how everything was assembled and displayed? Was the Art the entire room and the contrasts it evoked? Even as I oohed and ahhed and said “Come look at this!” “Did you see that?” I wondered.

Moreover, what makes something Folk Art rather than Craft? I saw a gorgeous wooden train adorn ed white with wild swirls of color in abstract patterns. It didn’t seem to belong to any specific cultural tradition. If I had the patience and the vision (in the sense of creative vision, not eyesight – although good eyesight would certainly be a help), I could probably have costructed and painted this. If I did, I believe the end result would be considered “Craft” not “Art.”

Later, when Nora went to take her afternoon nap, Jim and I went wandering first around the Plaza, then up Canyon Road. For those of you who don’t know Canyon Road, it is where the very chic galleries are located. Even there, where (at least based on the price tags) the art would certainly be considered Fine rather than Folk, we saw a wide variety of materials in use. There were a lot of case bronze sculptures, but also works in stone. How these materials were interpreted also varied widely.

As we walked and wandered, I found myself remembering a time I took my mom to what was – I think – her first SF/F art show. She’d already proven herself adaptable to the strange environment and panel topics. I’d wondered what she’d think of the hall costumes, but as someone who sewed (and who had made her share of both theater costumes and Halloween costumes) she immediately appreciated the talent and effort involved.

In the art show, that same appreciation for effort and talent made her comment favorably about many of the pictures. Finally, however, she stopped and said, “But I can’t see hanging any of these on my walls.”

I had to smile. In her house, she has a painting depicting tiled rooftops, lit by warm sunlight. It’s a pretty piece, but not something I’d ever hang on my walls. On the other hand, I have several pieces purchased from SF/F art shows.

Jim and I have similar enough tastes that when we blended households, we also didn’t find it to hard to blend furnishings and art. Even so, there were times I had to adjust my idea of what was ornamental.

One of Jim’s treasured pieces of Indian art depicts the aftermath of a battle between Navajos and Utes at Shiprock in New Mexico. I don’t think I would ever have chosen a picture with so many dead horses and Indians in it as a dominant piece in my living room. But I’m used to it now, just like he’s used to having a full-sized reproduction carousel horse in the entry by the front door.

In the end, I guess I don’t really care what’s fine art, what’s folk art, what’s craft. I’m glad it’s all out there. The world would be too boring a place if we all hung the exact same pictures on our walls, read the same books, and listened to the same music.

Thread Through the Labyrinth

April 13, 2011

We had our first rain in over two months last week – a walloping six

Despite The Wind

 hundreths of an inch. There are a couple of ring-necked doves – one ivory-white, one pale grey – setting up housekeeping in an old nest in the tree out front. Spring is definitely trying to move in.

The wind has been blowing like crazy, of course, since that’s more part of Spring in New Mexico than crocuses and daffodils. That means even though I’d like to be outside, I’ve been in. I’ve just handed-off to David Weber the manuscript for the first of our collaborative novels, putting the ball in his court.

So, between completed work and windy weather, I’ve had more time for reading than usual. Some of this reading has been research for my next project, but some has been a combination of pleasure and keeping up with the field. I’m not one of those writers – and there are far too many, I fear – who stop reading SF/F once they start publishing it. Some don’t stop reading, but only read the “hot” books of the moment or books by their friends, a sort of “keeping up with the Jones” reading list.

I do read books by my friends. A recent read was Pati Nagle’s Heart of the Exiled, a book that quite honestly I would not have picked up if I didn’t know Pati. The cover is just too Romance Novel for this reader. Heart of the Exiled is a good read, far more adventure fantasy than romance as the cover might suggest.

I also read Walter Jon William’s Deep State, but that’s one I probably would have read anyhow. I was a fan of Walter’s stuff long before I moved to New Mexico and we got to be buddies. In fact, many years ago, when I taught an SF course, we did Walter’s Hardwired – a book I still think is among the best of the cyberpunks, far better than William Gibson who has great ideas but not much in the way of characters.

But I also re-read Clifford Simak’s Out of Their Minds. I found it as wonderful and bizarre as ever. Interestingly, for a book first published in 1970, many of the themes are current today, especially the question of information overload.

I read Patricia McKillip’s new release, The Bards of Bone Plain. I’ve met Ms. McKillip, even been on panels with her, but we’re professional acquaintances, not friends. The same goes for Jo Walton, whose Among Others was a recent selection. Would I have read the books without having met the authors? Definitely. McKillip has been one of my favorites for a long time, and I’ve been following Walton since her first novel. The semi-Arthurian stuff didn’t hold me, but her alternate histories and Tooth and Claw certainly did.

Jack McDevitt’s Echo was on my recent list. I enjoyed it a lot. I love SF that hasn’t forgotten Sense of Wonder. Jack definitely has not. We met when Jack was out here as a Guest of Honor at Bubonicon. Hit it off instantly. Doesn’t hurt that he likes archeology (his son is an archeologist) as well as writing, so we have a lot in common.

Which brings me around to something that’s been bugging me a lot. I have friends who are old enough to remember when they could read pretty much everything SF/F that was published in a given year. By the time I started reading the genre, there was no way that was possible. Moreover, there was a backlog of really good stuff out there. That means that rather than wanting to read all the new material, when I discovered an author I liked (such as Simak) I went and found older works.

Today, not only is it impossible to keep up with everything new in SF/F, there are so many sub-categories, a reader could stick with one flavor and never venture out. That seems sort of sad. SF/F used to be about Sense of Wonder. No matter the angle from which it was approached (and I can’t go into this here; I’ve done hour-long talks on the sub-genres that haven’t even scraped the surface), “What if” (space travel was possible, you lived where magic worked, there was One Ring, there were parallel universes…) was the ruling principle.

It seems to me that if you only read space opera or vampire novels or alternate histories, you’re missing so much.

Worse… What was once really good stuff might not be anymore, so reading back through Hugo or Nebula winners isn’t a sure thing. Within the last couple of months, several friends have confided in me that they went and re-read an old favorite and found it flat and uninteresting. The ideas were no longer fresh, the characters were unrealized.

I have friends who are a lot younger than I am… Sometimes I’ll mention an author (Niven, Zelazny, Simak, Wynne Jones) I am certain they must have read. They look at me with interest, but it’s clear they don’t know what I’m talking about.

This doesn’t mean they’re not readers – most of them read voraciously and thoughtfully. They’ve turned me on to authors I would have missed. (Thank you, Rowan, for Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy). But when they go to the bookstore, the new stuff is what’s there.

When they go to a used bookstore, there’s this sea of book spines, often with lousy covers (I never would have picked up Out of Their Minds from the cover) and jacket copy or blurbs that assume a different context. (Authors you’ve never heard of recommending authors you’ve never heard of doesn’t exactly help).

Wow… I’ve really wandered on. I’ll stop here with a question. How would you recommend authors to the eager new reader? Do you make sure you’ve re-read that old favorite and that it still reaches you? How do we spin the thread to guide them – and us – through the labyrinth?

Run And Find Out

April 6, 2011

I bet it will be no surprise to anyone reading this that Rudyard Kipling wrote some of my favorite stories. The Mowgli stories from The Jungle Books are obvious choices – although, actually I love the short stories, too. I also adore Kim. Puck of Pook’s Hill is a strange and amazing story.

One Kipling story that particularly speaks to me is “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the tale of a mongoose who, like all of his clan, “is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.” The motto of the mongoose family is “Run and find out.”

In many ways, that’s my motto, too.

Long ago, my sister and I resolved that it wasn’t worth arguing about anything that could be looked up. We didn’t have the Internet then, but we did have dictionaries and encyclopedias.

These worked well to resolve most questions. That didn’t mean we didn’t argue – I mean, we were sisters within two years of each other in age – but we rapidly learned the difference between fact, opinion, and that very shaky quality: “belief.”

One of the best things about “run and find out” is when you learn you’re wrong. Whole horizons open up then. Here’s a neat example that happened just recently. Jim tends to use the word “reticent” where I would use “reluctant.”

I questioned him about this, pointing out that the dictionary definition of “reticent” was “characteristically silent in temperament; restrained or reserved in style.” By contrast, “reluctant” meant “unwilling; averse; marked by unwillingness.” This latter definition, based on context, was clearly what he intended.

Jim agreed that the dictionary and I were right. He’s very patient with me.

Then, just a few days later, my friend Debbie came by for tea and chat. (Well, tea for her, coffee for me). Debbie is quite bright and well-read, so when I heard her using “reticent” in place of “reluctant” I was fascinated.

I knew I was right about the definitions of these words. The dictionary confirmed that my understanding of them was correct. Yet, clearly I was missing something.

As I mused over what Jim and Debbie might have in common, revelation hit. Jim grew up in Michigan. Debbie grew up not that far away in Ohio. Clearly, what we had here was a regionalism, where “reticent” had acquired the added meaning of “reluctant.”

I was very excited – not because I was right, but because I had discovered that there was more to the picture than a simple dictionary definition. One of these days, maybe someone will tell me how this added definition evolved. Even if I never learn, my ears are now opened.

Curiosity drives me, which is one reason I ask so many questions in these wanderings. I’m guessing curiosity is a driving force for a lot of SF/F readers… Or maybe not. Maybe now that the genre has moved from fringes to the mainstream, that curiosity has vanished.

What do you think?

P.S. On a completely unrelated note… Last week, author Diana Wynne Jones died. I wrote about her works this time last year. You can read what I said by going to April 7, 2010.