Cool Kids #3!

Cool Kids #3 is available for sale today!

Cool Kids #3 continues as an eight-page black-and-white comic, detailing the college moments of Jen and her friends. With art by Sean Lynch, this is my favorite issue so far. I gave Sean a complicated request, involving the escalator’s at Marshal Field’s, and he delivered beyond my expectations.

Come check out my recently renovated website at Slightly Obsessed Studio, and buy Cool Kids #3 today!

Happy Birthday, M.

I was there when he was born. Yes, M is our adopted son, but I was still there when he was born, thanks to the goodwill of his birth parents. Six years ago today at this hour we were all still waiting for him to show up.

This morning, at 5:08 a.m., I was awoken by the firm voice of Mission Control in the basement playroom, announcing the lift-off of the Saturn V. Over and over again, until I asked Mission Control to please bit a little more quiet, as it was not yet time to get up. This morning, M put away the milk and juice and cereal without being nagged. He’s getting to be a big kid, six years old today.

Happy Birthday, M.

Ren Fest, 2009

Well, we got lost on the way there. Mostly (entirely) because we didn’t look up where it is, exactly, before embarking. (We go there once a year, and never quite remember where it is, what can I say?) But we eventually arrived, and Fest was its usual self.

By usual self, I mean we that we had to run a gauntlet of fa-la-la-la-lah-ing singers at the gate, only to be nearly run down by a stick juggler. You know, Festival.

The thing is, I like Fest. I don’t particularly like the ever-present-seething comedy. Or attempted comedy. I don’t like the slapstick, the jokes, or the shtick. But I like the, the enthusiasm. I like the costumes, however partial they may be. I like the stuff, oh yes precious I do. I like the coin necklaces and the leather mugs and the mmmmmshiny shiny swords. I like the music — at least until I hear the lyrics. (Traditional folk music of the British Isles I like quite a bit, but the comedy I can do without.) I like all the crafts and artisans working, I like the games and rides. I like the animals.

My favorite part of Fest, though, is looking at the people. At those working Fest, at the enthusiastic attendees in their best costumes, at the families like mine in shorts and T-shirts. I like the wides ages of people working and attending — Fest really is a family event. I love looking at the teenagers who are feigning some sort of world-weary affect while they work a booth in costume — the ennui can’t get hold because, after all, they are here, volunteering, and if they didn’t want to be here there’s plenty of folks to take their place.

Ren Fest is another of those community events. Sure, it’s designed to part me from my money, but it’s also a shared act of whimsy. It’s a lunatic joint suspension of disbelief, one that allows lords to stride past the laser-etching booth, that allows ragged serf to push the fiberglass-and-steel giant rocking horse for the kids. That allows gypsy-sorts to beg for shiny pennies on the behalf of their reptiles — rescued and cared for by volunteers. I just keep thinking, when I look around the grounds, that there’s a lot to be said for thousands of people getting together to play a friendly game of make-believe every now and then.

K got a lace-up green halter top, and M got a wooden ax. Everyone was satisfied as we walked back to the car.

Quiet Thursday afternoon

I ought to be hauling That Stuff I can see from where I’m sitting down the stairs and put it all away in the basement. But I’ll blog first because, you know, that’s just how I roll.

M is out at a friend’s house for a playdate. He walked there himself, which was great. In case anyone has missed it, I am a firm believer and participant in the Free Range Kids ethos. I think kids learn to become confident, competent adults by mastering their world in age-appropriate ways. I do not think the world has become more dangerous since I was a kid. I do not agree that sexual predators, or another other kind of predator save mosquitos, are a realistic threat to my kids. I believe that cars are the most dangerous thing in my neighborhood, that dirt is good for you, that cough medicine is a placebo, and that kids fall asleep best when left alone in a dim room without any parent, music, or food.

Hence letting M walk to the neighbor’s house alone.

K has been walking to her neighborhood playdates alone for at least six months, probably longer. She learned to look both ways while crossing streets and alleys EVERY TIME much earlier than M. I peered out the window as M approached the street. He looked both ways about sixty-three times, ostentatiously, before inching out past the parked cars, looking again, and carefully crossing. He has a friend now, you understand, who he really likes. Who lives one street-crossing away and up about three blocks. He wants to earn the privilege of visiting on his own, independently, without relying on parental willingness to escort. He’s been working hard all summer and today he’s passed the first test of his new resolve.

K is at the neighbor’s, I can hear her next door, whooping.

J is napping before work. N is upstairs in his new office, at work. I occasionally hear his voice through the ceiling as he talks to his coworkers. The dogs are all snoring.

My house is quiet. It’s very, very strange.

Tonight the gang is coming over for Beatles Rock Band. While J and I were cleaning out the kitchen (so N can fit some of his stuff in it) I found two bottles of wine. Perhaps Abbey Road makes more sense with wine? We might test this theory later.

Alright, enough stalling. The butcher-block table under the windows is covered with a host of small items to be taken down to storage. I think I’ll get going on that, in the quiet and stillness of the sleepy late-summer house.

Hero-narrative

J and I watched the movie Apollo 13 with the kids yesterday. You know, the one with Tom Hanks in it, the one with “we’ve never lost an American in space and we’re not going to start on my watch.” At the point where Jim Lovell is staring out the window at the moon, knowing he’s never going to get another chance to walk on it and he might be dead before the week is out, both my children burst into loud sobs.

We paused the movie and held them, but I honestly don’t feel too bad about it. After all, parenting can be viewed as the process of systematically scarring your kids’ brains until they instinctively flinch away from actions that a) will get them killed and b) are antisocial. Placing a scar in my kids’ little cerebellums that says, “space travel is important and dangerous and it is one of the greatest achievements of our kind, and a loss to any one of us in space is a loss to us all” — I’m okay with that. M and K were bawling not because they were worried about Lovell’s life — we had, after all, reassured them vigorously before turning on the tv that everyone lives, it all turns out okay. My kids were sobbing because Lovell was missing his chance. Because his dream was right there, and it was never going to be attained.

I’m perfectly happy that they sobbed. Out of such empathy are non-sociopaths made.

I, on the other hand, was sobbing at different parts of the film.

It’s the Mission Control parts that get to me. Partly, I suspect, because that’s the end of the mic I’m on — the end sitting in a big room with scopes and radios and monitors, trying to talk pilots through bad weather or icy conditions. I know exactly how people can be yelling and frustrated and even scared, and when we key up the mic to transmit, our voices are calm and easy. But that empathy is only part of it. The scene where the engineers all check Lovell’s math makes me cry. The scene where the engineers fit a square peg in a round hole makes me cry. The parts, all the parts, where dozens of nameless men in their short hair and ties and sportcoats and black-rimmed glasses get us into and out of space. I honestly can do without the hero-narrative throughline of Apollo 13. The true heroic story, for me, is that hundreds of people all over the country keep putting things in space.

When J and N and the kids were at the reception for the crew and families of STS-128, the party was full of representatives from all the space centers, all over the country, who contribute to getting the shuttle in orbit. The people who make the motors, the people who make the tiles, the teams of engineers and scientists who each make one small part of the shuttle and their work is in space. That’s the sort of accomplishment that gets to me. That is astonishing.

Throughout human history cultures have built things that took the production of entire nations to finish. Those things have rightly been called wonders of the world. But it’s not merely the Great Walls or Colossi that make me pause, and think, and choke up. I just finished two books, both about the Victorian Age of Empire, both about the effects of efforts of will by groups of people. The Ghost Map tells the story of how modern sewer systems made the future possible. King Leopold’s Ghost tells how and why the Congo has entered the twentieth century at a crippling disadvantage from which it has yet to recover. In both these tales, acts of will by single men set a course for great changes, both good and ill. But in both stories those acts of will did absolutely nothing, had no effect, until their causes were joined by others.

History knows the name of John Snow, but it barely recalls Henry Whitehead, or Balzagette. Snow discovered the source of the cholera epidemic in London; but Whitehead proved him right, and Balzagette was the architect of the idea of a modern sewer system. King Leopold II was the owner of the Congo, and his policies were responsible for the deaths of 10 million Congolese and the theft of 1 billion dollars from the colony. But he didn’t kill a single man, woman, or child. He cut off no hands. His work was done by thousands of willing partners in the search for first ivory, and then rubber.

When I read fiction these days, my mind is drawn to the nameless thousands implied by the story. When the resistance fighters in Terminator 4 fire those endless rounds of ammo, I’m pondering the smelting of brass, and how on earth one would hide that from the Machines. When the elves of Rivendell prance about in their clothes, I am pleased to recall that Tolkein devoted page-count to telling us how the cloth was made. I’ve read too much history to not think about the wider world beyond the page or screen. When I see Nicole Stott in orbit at the ISS, I look at the polymers and cloth and metal up there with her and wonder how much of our planet has gone into her presence in space.

This is why steampunk grates on me as a genre. Because the myth of the lone hero-inventor-scientist-engineer ignores the questions that I need answered. How does the hero get clean water when germ theory hasn’t been invented yet? And where does he get the rubber for all those steam-gaskets?

MN State Fair, 2009

J and I took the kids to the Minnesota State Fair yesterday morning. This is a family tradition.

Now, the State Fair is held about two miles from my house. This makes the two-week span of the fair an . . . interesting driving experience. Streets all through my neighborhood are buggered up with traffic, especially with this year’s crop of Exciting Highway Construction projects. But that’s neither here nor there. The point of this post is that I am not the person I was 20 years ago.

My goodness, y’all. I was a jaded, cynical, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world sixteen-year-old. In the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, there was a rule for aging your character and your stats. As you got older your Strength and Dexterity got lower, for instance. I thought this made sense. Old people are weaker and less flexible than young people, everybody knows that. But I thought the rule that said one’s Wisdom went up as one aged was utter nonsense. I knew, at age 16, that there was nothing else to learn about people. That I contained the knowledge of the world, at least as far as human nature went. Sure, there were always more facts to be gained — that was why it made sense that one’s Intelligence score went up with age. But as far as knowing how the world operated, the good and bad of people? I totally had that down. At sixteen, I was as wise and worldly as anybody else, more so than most.

Oh my. My, my, my, my, my. My goodness. I just want to pat my younger self on the head for being so precious.

But at sixteen, I was cynical. I hated things like fairs and parades and community celebrations, because they were fake and meaningless. Because as long as humanity was still doing the crappy things we did the rest of the time, these celebrations of togetherness and optimism were lies, lies, I tell you! Puerile bullshit to placate the masses. I was smart and I was wise and I wasn’t fooled or taken in by anything.

I didn’t get it.

I didn’t get, then, that fairs and parades and community celebrations are not a lie draped over the head of a sheep-like populace. Neither are they a denial of the harsher aspects of life. What I didn’t get then, and I do get now (look, after age thirty, characters gain +1 to Wisdom!) is that people and communities are complicated. That we as individuals and groups engage in acts of generousity and venality one right after the other, if not simultaneously. That we celebrate singular identity and diversity at the same moment. That the Fair encourages a mass culture of Caucasian farmers and farming and conspicuous consumption and eating, while inviting every immigrant who has moved here to partake and join and learn and contribute. That the Fair hosts every political party while lampooning every single one of them with visciously satirical crop art and crafts.

What I didn’t understand when I was sixteen is that group identity is built through shared experience. That understanding is built through exposure. That community is maintained through working together towards common goals. I didn’t understand that events like Fourth of July parades and the Aquatennial and the Fair are the, the large-scale antidote to the factionalism and divisiness that lead to crime against strangers, that lead to insularity and isolation. Events like the Fair lead to a recognition of the humanity of one’s fellow citizens. And recognizing that strangers are human like you is the first step to not harming them.

Anyway, it’s a family tradition. My kids ate crappy fried food, we all devoured garlic fires in a mutual garlic death pact, and the kids went on 462655426 Midway and Kidway rides. And we all participated in the genial, sincere, unironic creation of community that is the State Fair along with the tens of thousands of other people. And I’m really loving that extra point of Wisdom.

Books That Are Good For Me

This week, J and myself and N determined that N is going to move in with us. He finally, thank goodness, sold his house. He closes at the end of the month. J and N have been together for, oh, gosh, what is it? Four years? Something like that. So we’re all going to give this a whirl. If it doesn’t work out, if we can’t all live together, it’s not the end of the world.

But that’s NOT what this post is about. No, what this post is about is Books That Will Be Good For Me.

In support of moving N and his stuff into our wee house, all five of us — three adults and two kids — are culling our possessions. At this moment strewn through the house are twelve bags of books, three bags of graphic novels, and four laundry baskets of children’s books, all waiting to be given away. The kids’ books are all things they have outgrown. We’re keeping sentimental favorites, we’re giving some to my relatives, but the bulk of them we’re donating or selling. The adult fiction and non-fiction is going to Half-Price Books. The graphic novels I’ve found a home for. But here’s the thing. I have got to stop buying books based on my good intentions.

I’m talking about the Serious Books. The Important Books. The books I hear others talking about on a radio show and I think, “ooh, that would be an important book to read.” That’s the kiss of death.

I love history, I really do, but I am never going to finish Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People. Especially since I am missing volumes two and five. I adore William Manchester’s World Lit Only by Fire, but that does not mean I am going to ever read Civilization and the Middle Ages. And speaking of William Manchester, the biography of Eisenhower is just not going to be finished, ever, no matter HOW good the thrice-cursed-UNFINISHED biography of Churchill is.

I read The Film Noir Reader, but I’m not going to re-read it. And I’m sorry, they are geniuses, but I am never going to read Hitchcock/Truffaut. Ditto Miller/Eisner. But I am keeping all the books on writing. EXCEPT THESAURUSES. Those damn useless things can go.

All the Important, Seminal (or Ovular) Works of Science Fiction That I Read Once are in the bags. All the books I bought at Wiscon and really, really, really meant to read because I met the author and she was awesome, but then never read? Those are in the bags. Anything I bought more than three years ago and never read? In the bags.

What I need to do is, I need to stop buying books because I look at them and I think they will change me. I need to stop buying books because I want to be that sort of person who is current on all the new feminist sf/f writers. I need to stop buying books because I want to be that erudite person who understands the hot, trendy polisci buzzwords. I need to stop buying books because I want to have a complex and nuanced understanding of the origins of World War I, or the ramifications of the Warsaw Pact. I am not any of those people; not by will alone.

The thing is, I do read widely. Also, sometimes, deeply. And I kept a lot of books that I have read only once, because I know I will re-read them again. I kept the history of the founding of Australia, for instance, and the collection of greatest military blunders. I kept all of my Ebert books and I kept all of my Dorothy Sayers, regardless of how infrequently I re-read them. And between us, J and I have four complete sets of The Chronicles of Narnia, none of which we will be parted from.

But all those books I bought out of love. Out of love and passion. And the fact that I learn from them, and grow, and expand my knowledge of people and the world, that is incidental to the love. I do buy books that are good for me. I do buy books that make my personal world wider. But the love has to come first, I think, from now on. That’s what libraries are for. To give the knowledge in the books a chance without commiting to giving up shelf space.

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss you only love, you may see the world about you devastated by eveil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to Learn. Learn why the worlds wags and waht wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

T.H. White