The Ice of March

March 20, 2020

We’re having an early spring, which means lots of ice right now. Here is a collage of photos I took earlier this week.

Is the Coronavirus in Your Story?

March 6, 2020

One of the big taboos of writing fiction (of which there are many) is reference to current events. Especially in mysteries, the conventional wisdom is that it “dates” your story in a bad way, plus it’s hard to know what people will remember about the time a decade or so later. Personally, I find it disconcerting to see events missing in a story that is otherwise dated by things like bell bottom jeans and primitive answering machines. A story that seems to take place in the early 1940s without a war in the background is downright jarring. I think part of the appeal of twentieth century historical novels, which are quite popular at the moment, is that real-world contextual details are included.

PD James went ahead and included the SARS virus in The Lighthouse to good effect. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a 2002-2003 epidemic with life-threatening symptoms that appeared in 26 countries. The number of cases was considerably smaller than those that have already appeared in the Coronavirus. The quarantine on an island became a technique for keeping modern forensics out of the story, making it a plausible Agatha Christie-type whodunnit.

There are many many rules about what not to do in fiction (and narrative non-fiction). Show don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Avoid adjectives. Keep description minimal. You might think this a side effect of the cottage industry teaching “how to write,” with experts spouting these rules to seem like they’re teaching something that really cannot be taught. There’s a little of that, but professionals in publishing seem to have picked up some of these rules and are even guilty of establishing a few.

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith spends a lot of time telling the reader what’s going on inside the heads of his characters, a big no-no. Remember: show, don’t tell. I noticed recently that I read a LOT of British mystery authors, to the point where I know the streets of London and the universities in the small towns. I know enough about the food they eat that I could probably cook some of it. The draw is decidedly not the location. I’d like to go to Britain someday, but I’m not an Anglophile. It’s not my spiritual home (at least I don’t think so, never having been). So why do I prefer 21st century British authors? I think it’s because they don’t follow those rules so carefully. I don’t think they have to. Getting published in America is extremely difficult, and the publishing industry in New York seems to be sold on those rules. Otherwise, there would not be so much sameness in the 21st century American novel.

As I was at my desk writing earlier this week, reflecting on my dissatisfaction with the many rules of the game, I looked down at the street and saw a person walking a Smooth Fox Terrier, McCall Smith’s “Pimlico Terrier” in his Corduroy Mansion novels. I took it as a sign that it was time to stop letting other people tell me how to write. I’m not saying that I’ll necessarily write about a virus, but I won’t avoid it, either. The experts are teaching us all how to write the same novel, and that really isn’t healthy.

Hearth’s Revolutionary Dream

February 28, 2020

I traveled to eastern Vermont, to a one of those New England towns where all the bed-and-breakfasts boast about a hero of the Revolution who slept there.

I went into a gift shop and handed the woman behind the counter a rubber-banded stack of brochures for services I offered to the public (not sure what those were), and said to her, “If you’re going to just throw those in the trash, please hand them back.”

But she insisted she would take and distribute them. Then she suggested I browse the gift shop.

I walked over to a display of potpourri and picked up Bernie Potpourri in a little plastic bag stapled to a cardboard closure. It smelled like mothballs. The camphor smell was pleasant to me, though, and I inhaled deeply.

The retail clerk came over to me and said, “Bernie is really about helping old people. That’s his true constituency.” I decided to buy Bernie Potpourri.


Early in the primary season, I reluctantly decided I would support Andrew Yang. I hated to support a male candidate when there were many qualified women running, who seemed to actually have a chance of winning, but Yang’s platform was just too good and well thought out for me to ignore. Yang has a degree in economics, as do I, so that’s probably part of why his ideas made sense to me. (Actually, I think Trump also has a degree in economics, but he’s from a different school than I, in so many ways.)

I paid enough attention to the primary to see how Yang did, but I’m tired of this election season already, and I’m not watching debates or keeping up with developments. Of course, there’s really no way to escape it, so subconsciously I probably have been trying to make up my mind who to vote for.

I thought I was probably going to vote for Amy Klobuchar. She’s proven to be a competent legislator, which is important given how hard it is to accomplish anything in Washington these days. I would pick someone like Klobuchar with her limited vision, who can actually accomplish something, ten times over someone like Bernie, who has an attractive vision but hasn’t done much in all the decades he’s been around.

Plus, Bernie’s a dick. He switched to the Democratic Party in 2016 to run for president, then left the Party after he lost, then switched back recently to try for the Dem nomination again. As a registered Democrat, I resent him asking for my vote after that snub.

Also, like most people, I’m tired of his supporters. In 2016 I thought they were sexist, but this time around I’ve decided they’re also racist and homophobic. Mayor Pete is not my ideal, but they’ve been vicious toward him and won’t leave his supporters alone. He is definitely gay, even if he isn’t Queer enough for straights with interesting hairdos. And as for the other candidates being “too white” – what is Bernie? I guess whiteness is something we shall overcome, if we’re woke enough whites. Why didn’t the people making this argument support Yang, or Kamala Harris or Tulsi Gabbard (who is still in the race, I think)?

Yet I think the dream was telling me to vote for Bernie. It didn’t change my opinion of him, but it was telling me that a win for Bernie would be beneficial to me personally. I was gravitating to that mothball smell. The mothballs could apply to Bernie himself, who not only is old but is an old-school social democrat, or it could relate to good ideas that have been ignored for awhile that he would take out of storage. Mothballs could also relate to old people, reinforcing the message from the retail clerk (who was very nice, not like a Bernie supporter at all), that the demographic that would benefit most from his election is the senior one, which I haven’t reached yet but can definitely see from here. It was a potpourri, so there were a lot of unrelated plants being offered, but the camphor dominated.

Another aspect that is interesting is the stack of brochures. It says that I have things to offer that I feel have been rejected, and which people in the Bernie camp – no, Bernie Gift Shop – would value. Sometimes little details in a dream are important, so what about the rubber band? Rubber: flexible. Band: sticking together. Rubber Band: tying things together.

The touristy village where the dream took place is significant, and it says that this election is fundamentally related to the founding of the American government, relating to the ideals we like to think we live up to. But the village was selling access to heroes of the Revolution, suggesting there is another revolution coming. I think it’s interesting that the clerk was female, because the village was pandering access to long-dead men. The suggestion was that despite the sexism, there was something for me here (I guess since I’m also getting old).

Even though I would love to get more feedback on my dream, I’m closing comments on this article. I don’t want to hear more from Bernie Bros, or from the Bernie Bro Handmaidens with their “I suck dick for socialism” T-shirts*, and they can’t resist jumping into all conversations about the election. I’m tired of you guys. Tired, tired, tired. You have made me old and tired. Just go suck some dicks. I can’t wait for the day after Bernie is inaugurated, when you start throwing tantrums about how he betrayed you, by being the conceited old fart he’s been all along.

*I’m not making this up.

Found in Space

February 14, 2020
The oldest extant map of the world, from Mesopotamia, circa 6th century b.c.e. No, I can’t read it.

A man on the street laughed at me the other day for reading a map. “Hahaha, a map! Didn’t know people still had those.” Now, I can’t afford a GPS right now, and I don’t have a fancy new car with navigation systems, but….Even if I could have this stuff, I like my maps.

I’ve always loved maps. Topographical maps, maps of constellations, maps of neighborhood streets, highway maps. I like seeing a thing in relation to all the other things it shares a space with. Maps can be inaccurate, of course, but then so can satellite navigation, I’m told. I don’t entirely trust any technology. I’ve seen a compass go haywire more than once, and I’ve learned to trust my sense of direction . But I think learning to read a map has helped me develop a good sense of direction.

I like having a picture in my head of where I’m going. I can’t understand people who are content to know how to get to there. “Turn right, go .5 miles, turn left.” Don’t you want a picture in your head of the landscape, to know how the streets are oriented, how the geographical features relate to one another? Don’t you want to view the whole journey at once, not just one turn at a time?

I wonder what it’s like to not have a spatial conception of the world. Like, I used to marvel at how people lived back when they didn’t have reasonably accurate maps. I felt sorry for them. They must have had to go to the highest point in the county, many times, to memorize the landscape. But maybe they didn’t. Maybe they just didn’t care, saying “I know how to get to where I want to go.” Now, with electronic navigational systems, is spatial understanding being lost again? I mean, somebody laughed at me for looking at a map.

Dracula and the Human Brain

February 7, 2020

Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination.

Thus speaks Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in reference to the heroine in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I recently picked up this wonderful novel which I read as a child. I didn’t remember it at all, except that I recall thinking it rather boring in places. This reading kept me riveted.

I think if I were to get an advanced degree in English literature, I would love to write a dissertation on Dracula. There’s so much in this novel to dissect. But I want to explore here this comment by Dr. Van Helsing, because I didn’t understand it at first.

We are programmed, to the point of brainwashing, to think of the idea of “man’s brain in a woman’s body” in a certain way. This sexed brain idea, mistakenly called postmodernist, is that we must accept, without question or examination, what transgender people tell us about sexed brains and apply this concept. To do otherwise is transphobic and non-intersectional. Accordingly, a “man’s brain in a woman’s body” is a brain that hates the woman’s body inhabited by that brain. The body is experienced as a foreign object that must be changed through hormones, surgery, pronouns, or at least clothing.

Another acceptable view of the man’s brain/woman’s body concept, which doesn’t necessarily negate the body-hating one, is that a man’s brain offers a predilection for experiences and things deemed “masculine” by society: rough sports, trucks, the color blue, etc. In other words, sex stereotypes.

The interpretation of sexed brain as stereotypes can become difficult to apply in any consistent way, because these stereotypes differ across time and culture. The way around this is postmodernism, which posits that we not only can but must superimpose our subjective interpretation, steeped in our own times, onto any event, philosophy, or body of work. This rationale says that I cannot, really, understand what Stoker meant by man’s body/woman’s brain, because I am not a nineteenth century woman, nor am I Stoker. The only correct way to interpret Dracula is by affirming what it means to me.

To me the idea of a man’s brain in a woman’s body is a strange one, at least as it might relate to innate personality. As a psychiatric social worker, my understanding of the brain is that it is plastic, changing as a result of life experience. Learning a new language, taking up a new sport, being in a car accident (even without brain injury), will all change the brain. Thus, any difference in boys’ and girls’ brains at birth, even if it could be measured, cannot help but be overshadowed by life experience. Thus, a woman’s brain is the brain of a woman, reflecting her experiences in her woman’s body, including her experience of fertility and female sexual desire.

A woman’s brain is programmed to regulate a woman’s body, including her fertility, so in that sense it is different from a man’s brain. A woman’s brain recovers faster and more completely from traumatic injury, in general, than a man’s, so there’s another difference. But everything I know about the brain negates the idea that there can be a man’s brain in a woman’s body related to concepts of masculinity or femininity. If you define a man’s brain in a woman’s body as hatred of one’s own female body, that enters the realm of possibility (and also the realm of mental illness).

Not being a narcissist or a doormat, I do have an interest in what other people are saying. I am not a postmodernist. I make an effort to see through and around my preconceptions, and I do not accept unquestioningly the worldview dictated by the self-appointed priests of 21st century justice movements. So I was interested in what Stoker is saying here, once it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I assumed.

This brain that Dr. Van Helsing so admires in the character Mina is not male because it likes boy things. Mina does not appear to dislike feminine things or her woman’s body, and she doesn’t chafe against societal expectations of her. She does foray into activities normally associated with men, but she does so in an unselfconscious way. She most emphatically does not see herself as a man. Her brain is “male” because it is logical, consistent, insightful, and capable of drawing a big picture from a plethora of small data. In other words, Dr. Van Helsing sees her brain as “male” because she is smarter than he is!

Dr. Van Helsing also talks a lot about the “child brain” of the vampire Dracula. This also confused me at first, because of my conceptions of what a child brain is. I think of a child’s brain as being concrete and having limited capacity for abstract thinking. Capacity for abstract thought expands greatly during adolescence. This is empirically documented. A child’s brain is also more limited in its ability to separate fantasy from reality. I found the highly intelligent Dracula to not be hampered in these respects, so I was confused.

Finally, I realized that Dracula has the “child’s brain” in the sense of being self-centered. His personality is primitive and undeveloped. He hasn’t the ability to empathize with others or to understand that other people have different motivations and ways of seeing than himself. This is ultimately his downfall, because Mina and Dr. Van Helsing are able to anticipate Dracula’s movements by guessing at what he wants and what he will do, getting inside his brain so to speak. Dracula, with his “child’s brain,” is unable to anticipate the actions of the people hunting him, so in spite of his numerous special powers, he is at a disadvantage.

The “male” and “child” brains in Dracula illustrates how ideas about the brain are socially constructed. A postmodernist would say that this means the brain doesn’t exist at all, outside of a social or subjective construct. But then, the postmodernist brain has limited inclination to search for understanding outside pre-existing constructs.

I definitely had a child’s brain when I read Dracula as a child, although I don’t think I had a child’s brain in Stoker’s definition. The limitations of my thinking kept me from appreciating this novel when I first read it, despite my childhood fascination with vampires. I enjoyed the rediscovery.

2020 Year of the Rat

January 31, 2020

Anyone else notice attacks on their website decrease significantly during the Chinese New Year? The Chinese and Russian governments pay the most attention to this site. I don’t flatter myself that they’re reading it; I think it’s a policy of overall nuisance and mischief, not directed at me personally.

I’ve been listening to Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill on audio, about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual criminality. I hesitated ordering it, figuring it would make me mad, and it has, but it’s been interesting too. It struck me how hard it can be to understand the potential of a project to change things while it’s underway.

The other thing that struck me was how much better and more explosive the story became as a result of efforts of NBC executives to kill the story. They kept telling Farrow he didn’t have enough evidence, and he kept digging, I guess because he didn’t realize he was being played as a sap. It reminds me of the fairy tales, where the heroine is given some impossible task, like “bring me bones from the witch Baba Yaga’s hut,” as a way of getting rid of the naive heroine, and then she actually performs the mission. The evil stepmother rages, sends her out on another task designed to fail, and the heroine returns successful.

What’s really felt weird has been reading about the trial that’s happening this week in New York City while listening to this book. Weinstein is pleading “not guilty” to rape charges and the witnesses are different than the ones mentioned in the book. The guy certainly was busy.

Animal Rights and Feminism–What’s the Connection

January 24, 2020
Photo: Jay Bergesen

A misconception emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that took feminism seriously off track: the assertion that feminism is about “the rights of everyone.” Yes, because feminism deals with the rights of half the world’s population, it has had to delve into many issues that also affect men, albeit in different ways. Feminism has had to address racism, as it affects women of color. Feminism has had to address class, as it affects working class women. Feminism has had to address sexual orientation, as it affects lesbians. But these and other serious problems also need to be addressed within their own movements, in work performed by women and men: it is not the business of feminism to solve all the world’s problems. The moment women ceased to be centered in the movement dedicated to furthering their rights, feminism itself became a tool for placing women last.

Since feminism has never been popular, it’s debatable whether defining feminism as “about everybody” has done anything for other movements. Defining a problem as a “women’s issue” at best frames it as a problem for women to solve. Since women as a group lack political and economic power, while shouldering most of the daily work of taking care of others, the group with the least resources is tasked with solving the biggest problems. Certainly women should be part of these solutions, but they are men’s problems, too, and men need to give in real ways, not just in empty grandstanding.

Making feminism about everybody’s rights does make feminism slightly more fashionable. A feminism about “men too” is a feminism more men and women can get behind. And since men’s ideas and needs are the draw for the “everybody feminism,” men quickly become the priority. Feminism that centers men is (mistakenly) lauded as “intersectional.” Feminism that centers women, such as childbirth issues, is decried as “white feminism,” although childbirth can transcend “white feminism” by reframing it in terms of those identifying as men: chest feeding, not breastfeeding; front hole, not vagina; pregnant person, not mother. At worst, “everybody feminism” destroys the concept that there can be a legitimate movement centered on women’s rights.

Feminists who are for women have grown increasingly weary of “everybody feminism,” cognizant of the deleterious effects of feminist mission creep on the women’s movement. Nowhere has this mission creep been more obvious than in the assertion that “animal rights are a feminist issue.”

Feminism is a movement concerned with the rights of women – adult human females. By definition, it is not about nonhuman animals. The rights of animals are important – with the growing eradication of whole species it can be argued that animal rights are more important than those of women – but animal rights are not the same as women’s rights.

The exploitation of animals in capitalism is indefensible. Eating animals can be defended as the cycle of life or decried as unnecessary for human survival, but the wrongness of inflicting suffering on animals should be a given. There is also overwhelming evidence that exploitative practices of the meat industry contribute greatly to global warming and other environmental pollution. The question for people invested in the wellbeing of animals (and the planet) is not whether animals are exploited by humans but how to reduce or eliminate that exploitation.

Actually, there is an additional question: how to define that exploitation. The suffering of animals at human hands is so ubiquitous that you would think this definition would be obvious, or at least that debate over the finer points could be put aside until gross injustices are remedied. But there is a tendency in social movements to equate the suffering of one constituency with that of another, one in which there is seemingly more agreement. This tendency is especially prevalent when activists feel their efforts are being stymied. When people feel like they are losing an argument, they bring up such an analogy – not to gain insight into their issue or to explain their position, but to win the debate.

The most famous example of this tendency is Godwin’s Law, the observation that any passionate sustained argument will eventually devolve into a comparison with The Holocaust. Another common occurrence brings Segregation in the South into arguments that have nothing to do with race. Then there is Sexual Violence Against Women. Apparently it happens to animals too.

To people who use these analogies, the parallels are obvious. There is hierarchy and violence; there is domination and abuse; there is perpetration and suffering. But analogies are not equations. People who use human rights analogies need to think about where these analogies break down.

Infringement on animal rights predates patriarchy. I would guess (without really knowing) that abuse in 10,000 B.C.E. was milder than today, but at the end of the Ice Age many species of mammals were hunted by humans into extinction, and not always because there were no alternatives. Humans moved to a more plant-based diet partly because we had killed so many animals (though the environmental changes precipitated the imbalance).

Animal abuse does not, usually, involve sexual gratification. Yes, men can do all kinds of bizarre sexual things, but the key word is bizarre. Bestiality is not normative male behavior, unlike sexual abuse of women.

Animal abuse occurs across species. Animal rights activists are often criticized for caring about animals yet not caring about people. Sometimes this accusation is justified, sometimes it is not, but it is an obstacle in convincing the public to refrain from supporting factory farming. Occasionally I see social media bios that say something like, “I love animals and hate people.” I wonder, do the owners of these accounts understand that dogs and cats are not reading their Facebook posts? Do they think that kind of post endears them to other humans (unless those humans are so delusional they believe they are nonhuman animals)? Do they understand what it means to be human, and can a person who doesn’t understand humans think about animal rights in a coherent way?

One argument for animal rights as feminism uses a Marxist analysis of ownership of female reproduction. The idea is that, just as patriarchy controls women’s reproduction, animal abuse is about controlling the fertility of female animals. This, to me, is a stretch. Yes, domestic female animals are used for their eggs and milk. Every animal slaughtered is some female’s baby. But I don’t think female animals, on balance, are really treated worse than males. In the rural community where I live, which is very patriarchal, the marginal agricultural environment supports goats and sheep, and the females are well cared for. The males, of no use for wool or milk, are made into burgers. Male deer are hunted and does are left alone. Dogs and cats are not pampered according to sex, but male horses are usually castrated. I’m sure there are examples of female animals treated worse or suffering more than males, but as a country girl I’m finding this a hard sell.

Women’s right are human rights. They’re not animal rights.

The false equivalency between women’s and animal rights movements has produced a backlash that is in some way understandable. This should not mean, however, that feminism should leave animal rights alone. When feminist events become inhospitable to animal rights activists, it does become an issue specifically for feminists. I’ve noted situations where multi-day feminist events did not offer vegan options, either as part of the pre-paid event meals or as option to buy elsewhere in vegan food deserts. Since veganism is an important aspect of animal rights for many women, this becomes a feminist issue in terms of barriers.

There are a lot of “feminist” issues that are not intrinsically about women’s rights. Women in literature has been recognized from the start feminist issue, with women’s words suppressed or warped by patriarchy. Women in STEM is a hot feminist issue right now, with feminists pushing to overturn barriers for girls entering science and tech fields. Yet science is not intrinsically about women’s rights; it only affects our rights tremendously. Women and religion is another important area for feminists, yet is religion itself about women’s rights, or it only used as a tool for perpetuating male dominance?

Animal rights is a women’s issue when it is an issue begging for feminist leadership and influence. Animal rights as practiced can have a “ladies’ auxiliary” aura to it, with men defining and controlling the issue and women preaching to other women about becoming vegan to be a real feminist. It reminds me of knitting socks to help the war effort. Who controls the philosophy of animal ethics, or the strategy of animal rights, and why?

There has also been an element (which may now be on the wane) of the subjugation of women through animal rights activism. I’m talking about the PETA lettuce dresses and other skimpy clothing, the women re-enacting lobsters boiling, the women subjecting themselves to animal testing. This kind of “activism,” whether promoted by women or men, has used animal rights to express hatred and objectification of women. Young women, motivated by compassion for animals, have found themselves conned by this movement. I believe that in some instances animal rights has been used as an issue to control women.

Animal rights need to be discussed within feminism, not as part of the to-do list of being a feminist, but for feminist influence in a wider movement. Why is being vegan an issue for feminists, when men eat so much more than we do? Shouldn’t they be the focus of dietary changes?

Anything can really be about feminism, but the way we know if we are practicing real feminism, versus “everybody feminism,” is by looking at how that feminism challenges the power of men. Are animal rights a feminist issue? Only as they intersect with women’s rights. Only as they affect women’s right to influence an important issue. Only as they may be used by men to dominate women. Animal rights should, in the end, be focused on animals, and there are problems with grafting a human rights model onto animals. Sometimes we have to look beyond our anthropomorphic lens.

So these are the ways animal rights becomes a feminist issue: 1) Ensuring there are no barriers to participation by vegan women in feminism; 2) Pushing for meaningful participation by feminists in the animal rights movement; and 3) Countering the way the animal rights movement is used to further subjugate women. To base analysis of the subjugation of animals on the subjugation of women, however, is unhelpful. Most people, men and women, care less about the suffering of women than that of animals, and making animal rights about feminism extends the mission creep of “everybody feminism” from men to animals.