Mixed trashy and nifty reading, lately

Sometime in mid-December I paused on the J.D. Robb “In Death” binge read and moved on to cozier fields: detective novels by M.C. Beaton (aka Marion Chesney), who died in December 2019. I read the complete Agatha Raisin series, easily plowing through 2 in an evening, and am now up to book 25 in the Hamish Mcbeth series. Hamish has a Scottish wildcat, a dog with oddly blue eyes, a once-per-book longing for a cigarette even though he quit, and about 5 ex-girlfriends who all happen to show up at once for him to feel conflicted about as he discovers dead bodies. As a nice touch, he sometimes reads an amazingly exotic U.S. detective novel where everyone has guns and there are lots of high speed car chases.

In between ridiculous mystery novels, I read The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call Tartars by Giovanni Caprini, which was excellent and all too short. It’s an Italian ambassador’s account of his 13th century visit to Mongolia. He met Batu Khan and Güyük Khan, describing the journey and customs of the people he met, and rounded off the book with strategic advice on how to fight the Mongols. (Right at one of those turning points dear to writers of alternate histories as, if Ogedei Khan hadn’t died just about then, Batu would likely have overrun Europe.)

As a chaser I’m reading Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. It’s a collection of travel narratives by Muslim writers from the 9th century to about the 14th and it’s also pretty great. There’s no way for this not to be interesting and I love a primary source SO MUCH no matter what.

Ibn Fadlan‘s story describes his 9th century journey through Kazakhstan and then up the Volga to the far north where he meets the Rus, at least writes about the Samoyedi, and describes a Viking (Varangian) ship burial.

The next section of the book promises to be good as it’s an excerpt from Abu Hamid al-Garnati’s Wonders of the World where he goes to the land of the Bulgurs and writes enthusiastically about how cool beaver dams are. I look forward to his complaints about the food, the cold, the 20 hours of darkness per day, and how gross it is when people eat their own lice.

I also have William Cobbett’s Rural Rides going in the background, as it’s perfect for when I wake up at 3am and don’t want something with a compelling plot, so I can fall back asleep in the middle. It’s just Cobbett riding around Sussex or somewhere describing the scenery (which when I look it up, no matter how dramatically he describes it, it just looks like gentle, boring hills; Hawkley Hangar, I’m looking at you) and enthusing about the soil quality, how early you can harvest the corn (ie barley/wheat) or the turnips and swedes and also continuing his obsession with anyone who plaits straw for hats. Notable in recent middle of the night hallucinatory Cobbett memories, he had whooping cough and to cure it, rode all day and most of the night in the freezing rain with his shirt off, somewhere in the South Downs. Best sort of book as you can congratulate yourself on being in a warm, dry bed, totally not riding around England with whooping cough.

A lucky find, diaries, and computer fiddling

This weekend Danny and I went downtown to gawk in the aisles of Central Computers after Compupod didn’t have the external hard drive that I wanted. We combed through everything in the store just for fun. His amazing find was a tiny wireless keyboard which uses some sort of not-bluetooth protocol, and has a tiny trackpad built in, now hooked up to his Raspberry Pi which controls the projector and some lights by the bed. The interesting thing about that is he was looking it up while in the store and realized it is only available in that specific store and was probably made by the people who own it or their relatives or close connections. But it was also lovely just reading in bed and idly watching him reboot the Pi over and over as he twiddled settings on keyboard, mouse, pi, and projector and god knows what all else, including trying to control the projector through something called HDMI CEC, which barely worked and which led to much entertaining reading of forums of people cursing CEC into the ground).

I find this soothing and also extremely adorable.

Although, do you know how many fucking keyboards we have in this house?! I have at least 3 and Danny is worse. I think there are even at least 2 mini-keyboards in tiny cases and he has TWO of those artisanal wooden butterfly shaped keyboards (with cases) from Jessie and Kaya’s startup.

The other lucky find was, somewhere right around that area of downtown we saw a little pile of still-plastic-wrapped inch-and-a-half-thick Moleskin day planners. It is hard to think of something that one would pick up off the street enthusiastically in that part of SOMA but this qualified. We took all 3 of the notebooks, and I’m using one now as a simple diary.

It’s helping me feel a sense of continuity as I’ve moved away from daily blogging, and it also reminds me in a nice way of a childhood habit of writing down what I did every day. My parents started me and my sister on this with whatever printed calendar we had that year, or in little notebooks, one parent with each of us so the entries are in both our mom’s and dad’s handwriting, alternating. Then when I was around 7 I started writing some of them myself. Entries would usually be what books I’d read that day or whether I had dessert, pizza day at school, or who I played with after school. So like “Had pancakes. Read Henry Sugar. Played at horses at Chrissy’s house.” Stuff like that. I like the feeling and hope I can keep up this habit for the year.

Meanwhile my use of Habitica is still pretty good and useful. I also construct daily to do lists/schedules/shopping lists on long slips or paper or on index cards. It helps me to jot stuff down on this list as it occurs to me and to check in a few times over the course of the day. I also can see if there’s too much on the list for one day and figure out where to move errands or chores (move to a different day, put it on my calendar, put it on a more long term list, ask for help, etc.) My long term list used to be on Remember the Milk but the expense of it seemed silly after a while, so now I use Google Keep, which handily synchronizes across desktop and phone and which is free.

My 10 years old Mac Mini (Mozilla data center surplus) is still going strong, but I am upgrading it to a newer, fancier, faster Mac Mini figuring I can easily get another 10 years from it, and I want the ports, and I also have this nice new external drive so I can back up to that drive and to our Synology thingie as well. I should think harder about off site backups, maybe even as simple as taking an external drive to my storage space every once in a while.

Zine romp

Read a bunch of zines at Rubin‘s house. He had a nice approach to recovering from surgery – invite everyone he knows to come over in about a 4 day period, more or less unstructured, to hang out with him and maybe bring food. I worked from his couch for an afternoon, admiring his smart house setup (http post to open his front door!) and then stayed for zines and all the people who dropped in after work. He has a lot of cool zines as he is collecting them to take to a queer zine archive in Hong Kong.

Breaking the MANacles: an anti-patriarchy reader. The “Are you a Manarchist? Questionnaire” is fun.

Not Trans Enough: A Compliation zine on the erasure of non passing and non conforming trans identified people. From Run Away, a poem by Taylor Heywood,

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

No!

Run away while you still can!

There is more time to escape me!

Some zines by Aisling Fae including D(N)R / O(N)R and Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me / ¿Me Follarías? Yo me follaría. Transfeminine short stories in English and Spanish.

zine pages with a cut and paste layout poem

trans panic poems /// volume 1 – an interesting group of poems assembled in a hand sewn cardboard cover

Migrantskaja Europa #1

Jouissance and a sense of agency

Morning reading: Introduction to Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures by Christina Dunbar-Hester. This is going to be fun since everyone I know is quoted in it (often pseudonymously) But no quotes from me (I think) as during the interview phase I was having some sort of major health flare-up. And if there’s ever a book where I should be obscurely in the footnotes somewhere it’s this one!

Though “diversity in tech” discourse is emanating from many quarters in our current historical moment, it is important that the mandate of open-technology cultures is not identical to that of industry and higher education. Here, the reasons for engagement with technology nominally include experiencing jouissance and a sense of agency. This is experienced through, yet not reducible to, community members’ engagement with technology. If we tease apart the emancipatory politics from the technical engagement, we find that the calls for inclusion and for reframing power relations are not only about technical domains; rather, they are about agency, equity, and self-determination at individual and collective levels.

At that “jouissance” sentence I felt my heart sing and I felt so seen. Yes! This bodes well for the entire book’s understanding of our feelings and our context. So many histories leave out crucial things like love and fun and joy. Why have I fucked around with computers my whole life? Because love and happiness is why. They’re exciting, the Internet is still like a dream to me, the access to information and the possibilities of unfiltered/unmediated publishing or production, and consumption, still holds so much hope. Because I (we) like it that’s why. Like Mole seeing the Water Rat’s boat for the first time,

The Rat said nothing, but stooped and unfastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped into a little boat which the Mole had not observed. It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.

We still don’t, of course.

Also good, everything in this chapter about collectivity. *heart eyes emoji*

Industrious bread bakers

Morning reading – Cottage Industry by William Cobbett. In which Cobbett, publisher of The Porcupine and The Political Register, explains the skills (and costs) necessary to run a household: brewing beer, baking bread, planting 3000 rods of cabbages and swedish turnips, keeping a cow, and so on. He really hates on “the villainous root” (potatoes) as well as on watered-down, non-nutritious beer and the Malt Tax which made it difficult for people to brew beer at home. Part of the hate on potatoes is because they’re inefficient and costly – you have to make a fire 3 times a day to boil them – while for the same cost (according to Cobbett) you could spend half a day and one fire baking a bushel of bread to last an entire week.

I like when Cobbett works up a good rant.

And what is there worthy of the name of plague, or trouble, in all this? Here is no dirt, no filth, no rubbish, no litter, no slop. And, pray, what can be pleasanter to behold? Talk, indeed, of your pantomimes and gaudy shows; your processions and installations and coronations! Give me, for a beautiful sight, a neat and smart woman, heating her oven and setting in her bread! And, if the bustle does make the sign of labor glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a duchess.

Continuing the In Death series

From “Imitation in Death”, which I find hard going because it is particularly disturbing as the murderer is imitating the styles of various serial killers. This was oddly comforting, amazingly meta, to come across right after I had skipped a chunk describing a brutal murder to get to the nifty police procedural/ detective stuff.

“Rape, Peabody was sure, just as she was sure it had to have been brutal. And she’d have been young. Before the job. Peabody had studied Eve’s career with the NYPSD like a template, but there’d been no report of a sexual assault on Dallas. So it had been before, before the Academy. When she was a teenager, or possibly younger. In automatic sympathy, Peabody’s stomach roiled. It would take guts, and balls, to face that, to revisit whatever had happened every time you walked into a scene that reverberated with sexual violence. But to use it, instead of being used by it, that took more, Peabody determined. It took what she could only define as valor.”

Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke are both survivors of extreme childhood trauma and it’s one of the hooks of this series that keeps me reading, as their healing slowly unfolds, they learn to trust each other and be somewhat less dysfunctional, and they build a “found family”.

By this time in book 17, Roarke has faced many past ghosts from his childhood in Dublin, his father and his father’s death, and found some details about his mother he had no idea about (with a ludicrously homey reunion with his mom’s family!!!) Eve often faces having disturbing flashbacks as she deals with murder scenes but explicitly calls out her experience and “damage” as something that has given her strengths and insight into evil.

I’m impressed with this series in general. The dubious consent issues between Eve and Roarke have improved and it explores really interesting territory. I imagine a lot of readers have found the series useful in their own healing from trauma.

The science fiction (especially the fashions!) is still entertaining as well. Roberts doesn’t predict surveillance culture very well – for example people have a cellphone-esque “comm link”, but it doesn’t track their location, and what few security cameras exist are easily hackable somehow or their “discs” can just be stolen. (Which is just hilarious.)

Collective implicit learning and the internet

Morning reading. Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology, 1990 (revised 1999).

Franklin describes how, in a classroom, students are learning some particular thing, but are also picking up social skills “ranging from listening, tolerance, and cooperation to patience, trust, or anger management.” She then tells a story as a metaphor, of people who take a ski lift and then ski downhill — doing something complex and dangerous without having first acquired the skills to manage climbing, falling, getting up again on skis. Presumably by going up a hill on skis, which I didn’t even know was a thing, or, I guess in cross country skiing you are going up and down hills.

Well, anyway, her point is that on the internet or in online collaboration more people are… doing stuff… without having practiced and socialized the skills to do it in a social or maybe a public context. This may be less true than it was in 1990 or 1999. (And, anyway, not SO different from letter writing, though I recall all those “netiquette” guides. It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen something like that. Do elementary schools teach internet manners?)

It often strikes me as I listen to my teenagers online in games with their friends, from their early days building things in Minecraft to later games like Overwatch, that they are becoming very skilled in negotiating, planning, and executing their plans in a collaborative way over voice and text chat, combined with whatever layers of drama exist between them. It’s a set of complex skills that they’ll bring into their adult online life. This isn’t that complicated of an idea, but I think of it when I listen to other parents freaking out about “screen time” or the pointlessness of games.

Tangential but I also liked this quote she includes from Fritz Schumacher,

. . .we may derive the three purposes of human work as follows:
First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services.
Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards.
Third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.

That’s so interesting! I looked Schumacher up just now, and realized that his book A Guide for the Perplexed is the VERY BOOK that my friend Rose was describing at dinner last night!!!!! WTF!!! It’s like when you first hear a word and then come across it everywhere.

Flying car retro future

I was only vaguely aware of Nora Roberts as a prolific writer of best sellers when a couple of weeks ago @mostlybree on Twitter said something about her science fiction detective series. They are written under the name J.D. Robb and there’s FIFTY in the series so far. How could I resist?

The science fiction elements are a thin but amusing veneer. It’s 20158 and there are flying cars! Mind control and subliminal messages! Hilarious computers that can barely do anything! Space travel including interstellar flight to the colonies (so far, faster than light ship drive hasn’t gotten even a mention! They just jaunt off to Vega 6 or whatever!) There is futuristic slang like “ice” and “mag” and people wear sort of spandex one piece suits a lot!

Notably the romance novel hero guy, Roarke, is very unclear on the meaning of consent, but I skim over those bits or handwave them and it does improve a LITTLE after the first book or two.

More interestingly he and the protagonist, Eve Dallas, are both processing their childhood abuse. Eve has pretty intense sexual abuse survivor stuff going on, flashbacks, nightmares, and so on which often intersects with her work as a homicide detective.

She is also sort of butchy and doesn’t give a shit about anything. Enjoyable in itself! She’s always walking in late to a fancy dinner party covered in blood and bruises after not sleeping for 3 days and honey badger don’t care because JUSTICE. (And Roarke the zillionaire gazes adoringly at her the more she swaggers around with her thumbs hooked into her gunbelt — while Sommerset the butler gets more and more annoyed.)

Their relationship is a big focus of the plot as they figure out over time how to trust each other with more of their backgrounds and their vulnerabilities & drop their need to always be strong survivors, accepting each other’s concern and care. That’s fairly sweet. But that dynamic is even more interesting between Eve and her ever-growing cast of mostly female friends – Mavis the new wave rock star, Nadine the high-powered, hard working reporter from Channel 75, Peabody (raised by new age farm hippies) who she mentors at work. They are all trying to teach her how to be a friend and how to accept their loving friendship! Neat!

The best parts of this weirdly addictive series are the descriptions of fashion. Like, what is both futuristic and classy to the author, or how she imagines the reader, is deeply hilarious and familiar. It is like this 80s retro mall thing, where classy is basically, being on a date, eating a steak at Red Lobster while you have your hair elaborately feathered, spike heels, and a saucy little temporary tattoo of a butterfly on your left hip. Maybe a Red Lobster in SPACE LAS VEGAS. Maybe some hinted to be super racy sex with SCENTED OILS later on in the date a la Rick James “Superfreak”. Incense, wine and candles, such a freaky scene! There are these archetypes that are slightly “off” of retro-futuristic Satanists, Wiccans, computer hackers (“E-men”), glam rockers or new wave musicians, fashion designers, if they were all working at franchises in a 1980s mall. That’s how it reads to me. (I mean this affectionately.)

Here is one of the glorious outfits – I feel compelled to type out a monster paragraph.

“She’s the problem,” Yvette said with a thin smile, and Eve turned and got a full blast of the magnificent Simon.

The eyes caught her first. They were a pale, almost translucent blue framed by thick dark lashes and thin ebony brows that each peaked to a ruler-sharp point in the middle. His hair was a brilliant ruby red, swept high off his forehead and temples and styled to tumble in a snowfall of springy curls to the middle of his back.

His skin had the dull gold sheen indicating mixed-race heritage or complexion dyes. His mouth was painted a deep bronze, and riding along his prominent left cheekbone was a white unicorn with gold horn and hooves.

He swept back the electric-blue cape draped over his shoulders. Beneath he wore a skinsuit of chartreuse and silver stripes with a deeply scooped neckline. A tangle of gold chains gleamed against his impressive chest. He angled his head, sending the long gold dangles in his ears dancing as he set one hand on one slim hip and studied Eve.

I keep reading these characters as gay and Simon might be (he is a bit part, so far, a makeup designer, hell, maybe he’s the murderer) but sometimes they sound hella gay and then aren’t even bi (though, comfortingly, there are bi and gay folks tho no one trans in this version of 2058). First of all who the fuck notices someone’s eye color in this way? Anyone? Is that a thing? Am I just nearsighted and eye-contact-averse enough to find it completely alien?! When I first meet someone I just think “That’s a nice hat” and hope that person will please wear that same outfit and hair style for the rest of their life. I would never study someone’s eyeballs, WTF?!

There’s a lot to unpack in Simon’s description but let’s just contemplate the way it sounds like he has one cheekbone that sticks out further than the other one, and how it has a ridiculous sounding face painting of a unicorn. LOVE IT!!!!

Here’s another description, a bit more low key but it made me laugh as well. It is of a “quietly elegant” bar in Manhattan.

The bar had pretty silver-topped tables, pale blue privacy booths, and clever art prints of New York street scenes decorating the warm yellow walls.
Classy, she thought, glancing over at the long, shiny bar with sparkling mirrors and tuxedo-decked servers.

Classy like an episode of Miami Vice (which Danny just suggested would make a good aesthetic for this if it were a TV show and I can totally picture it)

Back to book 6, and trying to deduce things about the future technology of the world of Eve Dallas. It’s 2058 and there’s faster than light travel, antigravity, cellular rejuvenation, Autochefs that are like weird little microwaves which you stock with ingredients, except most people can only afford soydogs and soy milk and fake coffee probably also made of soy.

A delightful book beckons

In the park near our house on top of the hill, there’s a house that must belong to a teacher or school librarian, because there is always a cardboard box or two full of kids’ paperback books there, sometimes boring but sometimes the best sort of old, weird book. I had a stressful week at work and am feeling fed up so decided to dive into this gem from the free box.

It’s called The Saucepan Journey, it’s by Edith Unnerstad, first published in 1949, and is translated from Swedish. The book opens by describing the seven children in the family, and how they don’t have room in their tiny apartment for them all to sleep, having to put three chairs together and put an ironing board on top, or for the smaller ones, sleeping in a bureau drawer (as I hear I did as a baby!) There is a housing crisis (because of it being just post-war?) and no one will rent to them anyway because they have too many children and not enough money.

Their mother used to be a traveling (and maybe not very successful) young Shakespearean actress and their dad is a travelling button-seller but really, a brilliant inventor. He’s invented a 3 part whistling saucepan called “Pip”. A grumpy uncle dies and leaves them his brewery horses and two large wagons.

Their mom, a sprightly and inventive person herself, comes up with the idea that they’ll leave their cramped apartment, build bunk beds in one of the wagons, fit up the back of the wagon with a little kitchen, and travel the country selling Pip (in all three sizes).

Without even going further than that it’s clear this is going to be an amazing book. I am almost in tears at how awesome it is, and nothing has even happened yet! The Swedishness and the being 70 years old and it being relatively normal to have horses in the middle of cities adds to the fabulosity.

The parents are nice – fun – adaptable – And the children all seem to appreciate each other’s capabilities and quirks.

Why are some books so cozy, and enticing, and you can fall asleep thinking about how you’d fit up your little caravan behind your brewery horses, either with your seven (!) children or as one of them, enterprisingly selling patent saucepans? I can feel the stress just draining out of me. Even better — there are two sequels.

I met a fabulous storyteller

This afternoon I was sweeping up leaves from the sidewalk when an old guy stopped to remark on how he thought it was a pretty house. He lives around the block on Santa Marina and has lived there since 1952 and in 1960 he nearly bought this house but his wife didn’t like it. We continued chatting.

I mentioned the history of the house as an earthquake shack. He told me how he moved here in 1947, worked 6 days a week very long hours and earned 14 dollars a week, but that was very quickly enough to buy a house. His house was $9500 and soon he had enough money to buy a second house. And he’ll tell me something about it! We settled onto the sidewalk bench which I built specially for people to rest there when going up the hill, and I was prepared for pretty much anything at this point, because he was charming and rather intense. The story went something like this:

The house is at 18th and Church, in a little, in a little street near there,
“In the alley by the Mission? Mission Dolores!”
Yes, yes! You know! The Mission. The cemetery there.
“Yes I’ve been to the cemetery, it’s very strange, and sad, they enslaved people, a lot of people died”
Yes that’s right. The indigenous people died there. They’re in the cemetery. Anyway, in the 50s, 60s, I’m under the house, it’s, I’m on my knees, it’s very small,
“In the crawlspace?”
Yes! I’m crawling under there, I’m digging, it’s very dark, with the electrician, who is of Caucasian descent, European descent. And it’s very dark. He screams! He gives out a big scream! Then silence. Nothing.
“Did he find bones?”
No, no bones, I crawl around, I’m yelling Davy! Davy! That was his name. Davy (Scheule?) He was of European descent. And he fell down a big fucking hole!
“Oh my god!”
It is the well from the mission, Under my house! My house is built in 1750, and they don’t cover up the well!
Anyway, he was down the well, very far! I got out and got someone else, he brought a light. And we got him out of the well. It was very hard, and it took a long time. We got him out.
“Did he die?”
No, he was ok. And I tell a guy from the city! He’s of caucasian descent, this man. He comes, himself, with a crew, and he goes, himself, under the house! And he makes a stairway with the rope, a —
“A rope ladder?”
Yes, a ladder with the rope, then he goes down into the well, himself. And he comes up and has something, maybe, gold, but he says it’s his because he found it. I told him he can’t come back any more because I’m mad he took the things from the well! And, he reports me to the city because the house has no foundation.
“OMG. Coins? Money? What was it?”
I don’t know. Maybe money from 1900s, but older, it would be something else! So then I am building the foundation. I find the bricks, bricks put out for like to walk to the well, from the Mission. It’s a path to the well. Then I’m digging, I’m putting cement. And I dig these big wooden, like this, but big (indicating a 2 foot by two foot square beam) this big, from here, to that door (like 10 feet or so)
“Beams?”
Yes, big beams, of wood, very solid, very good, under the ground for 100 years. And then I find more of them, I dig them out. What they’re for I don’t know.
“Wow!”
Then I sell them, someone buys this wood for one thousand dollars! I don’t know why. I know things, not the things like this, but I know to fish, to grow, to build things. I’m not of European descent, I’m indigenous. So, I don’t know why they buy the wood, back then. What they do with it. I don’t let them go under the house any more.
“So, did you sell the house?”
No, I still have it.
“OK!!!!! So!!!!! Can I go down the well? Wow you are a really good storyteller! ”

*fin*

Then he gave me his card, in case I need advice in building or getting city permits which he’s great at because he’s been doing it for 50 years. We shook hands several times and I thanked him for the fantastic story!!! How did he know I love local history.

I have such good luck with random encounters and I want to be friends with this cool dude now. He is 86! And still contracting (with his son).

I guess all the houses right there around the Mission Dolores must be on top of some amazing stuff and archeologists have likely poked at it over the years!