Midsummer Story

I’ve now officially moved out of a city I lived in for my whole adult life, where I did a great deal of personal and creative work and learned different kinds of connection and tenderness. Last year I wrote this story in that city and although I only sent it around once or twice, it felt right to give it a public funeral by posting it here. I wrote several other pieces about or featuring Victoria, including Strange Places in the City and a couple still in the grinder, but I like the circannual quality of this one. Things are different for me now than they were the last time I touched this very slightly disguised piece of fey memoir. My last two weeks in Victoria were full of love, touch, care and community. I said thank you and goodbye to the house with the apricot tree that is described in this story, and somewhere in the dusk a band was playing, but I couldn’t find where.


Midsummer Story

In the summer neighbourhoods, where the cicadas went in their fallow years, syrphids and nymphs shimmered in the unmown yards.

The rest of the city napped in the sun. Every day the summer repeated itself, yawning.

I found chairs and plant-pots abandoned on street corners, and once took home a sewing machine. Students smoked hookah and played guitar on their front lawns in Fernwood. The news had said pot would be legal by July, but then time stopped and all the office-people were upisland anyway. Late at night, ambulances blared wearily past my apartment. No need to complain to us. We wish we were sleeping too.

While the city wasn’t looking, things came out. At night, raccoons ate cooling compost and never got sick. In the evening, swallows and mosquitos ruminated in nimbuses. The prime minister of crows and the king of deer held truce every noon in an alley off Cook Street. They argued their territories: lilac-bushes, bottles left empty on garbage cans, the diminishing lawns. No progress made, the Times Colonist reported.

The orange poppies at the side of the highway were called California poppies. They were far from home. I was too. We had all graduated in May. I wasn’t going home, so I clicked around for retail jobs and distracted myself from my bank account by taking long walks. My friends were packing to leave the city.

From the oak trees, summer caterpillars descended imperceptibly on long pendants of silk to disembark on me. I’d find them on my thighs and in the cuffs of my jeans. People who grew up in the city called them silkworms. They obviously weren’t, but I didn’t know what they were. Names slipped in summer.

I was wondering if I should get a new name, too, with everyone moving away. They were going to law school and to the North and to Hong Kong to teach English. It had never been easy for me to make friends. I foresaw long loneliness. I floated between nicknames, suspended like a dust mote in a beam of light. My common and feminine birth name felt flimsy, like a peasant skirt. I wanted a denim name, a leather name. I tried truncating it at various points but often the sunken pieces emerged without my meaning them to when I introduced myself. On my walks, I felt tender to the strangers I passed because I didn’t have to introduce myself to them. At the same time I wanted them all to hug me and remember my birthday.

I didn’t know where I was going. There was nothing to see but houses and imagined lives inside them. It was safe in the evening. You could look in windows and see impassive furniture: bookshelves, lamps, old men reading on couches. That way, you remained in contact with the people in the normal city.

But in the hot afternoon, everybody went inside and covered their windows so the sun didn’t gush in and flood their apartments. The windows were black and the shadows were short and blue. You could go a long time without seeing anybody at all. Even if you passed a human, you were both wearing sunglasses, so it was hard to say if your eyes met or if you even saw each other at all.

Soon I had drunk all my water and I realized I didn’t know exactly how to get back.

When I finally encountered a figure I said, “Sorry to bother you. Where am I?” My voice was muffled by the summer air like the wind off the ocean, born cold in May, that dies hot in July.

The figure reclined on a floral couch in a porch curtained by bedsheets. From the shadows, it lifted its cigarette in the direction of a street sign. The street signs had names on them, but I couldn’t say what names. “Do you have Wi-Fi?” I asked the figure, just in case. It tilted its head. Not solid, that motion revealed–a shaped cloud. From the tip of the cigarette smoke, buzzing things dispersed and burrowed back in under the armpit or the ear.

“Do you want to come inside and use the phone?” it said. The voice was a dissonant chord. It half-stood, its outline trembling.

I didn’t want to see what was in the house. “How do I go back?”

“Sorry,” the figure said. “You just have to wander and wait ‘til you see something familiar.”

“For how long?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to use the phone?”

I demurred. I could wander. I had an audiobook.

Six chapters on, the light hadn’t changed. The rainbow mirages at the horizon fled upsidewalk as I approached, but they often seemed to linger a second too long.

A triangular park unfolded at the other side of a disjointed intersection. I still looked both ways before crossing the street, though I hadn’t seen a car in paragraphs and paragraphs. To rest my feet, I lay down on the grass under a not-quite-oak tree. I put my baseball cap over my face; it would be good to nap. Bugs hopped in the prickling grass. If I had to guess I’d call them crickets or gnats but they weren’t either of those. They lived out their whole small lives in days that must have unstretched like decades did for me, slow like honey. Then in hindsight, too short. Well, they probably had ways to spend the time I didn’t know.

Along came the buzzing noise. I shifted my cap and the cloud was walking toward me. “How long have you been following me?” I said.

The cloud pointed across the park to its bedsheet-veiled house. “You came in a circle.”

This type of thing would have never happened in my hometown. All the neighbourhoods were centrally planned. There were deviations from the grid, to indulge aesthetics, but they capped in cul-de-sacs. The worst you could get lost was because all the streets were named the same things. Sagecrest Crescent, Sagecrest Lane, Sagecrest Close, Sagecrest Drive and so on.

“What’re you called?” said the cloud.

I shrugged. It didn’t seem wise.

“Okay—“ shrug—“you have cousins or something here?”

“Just walked too far.”

“You might have some. We should check the phone book.”

“I’m going to get going.”

“Want some help?”

“I can’t use the phone,” I said. “Well, the truth is I really can’t call anyone anymore.” To say this felt like one of those boards of pins you can push your face into at the science centre.

“Let’s walk then.”

There was no point saying I’d prefer to walk alone. I probably wouldn’t get anywhere. I took out my headphones and the cloud and I left the park in an uphill direction.

“What do you do?” said the cloud.

“I defended my honors thesis two months ago. It was on little free libraries.”

“What did you find out?”

“Not much. I did this computational analysis. With neighbourhood income.”

“Really into computational analysis, are you?” the cloud said, mildly.

“Originally not.” I was surprised to remember still. “They don’t have them where I’m from. So when I ran into one…”

The little free library there was hidden away behind the reservoir. I could only reach it if I walked a long path through a tilted neighbourhood of tall houses. Lichens and mosses grew into their dark rooves.

“I noticed the different people who used the library. The Pulitzer reader, the natural medicine reader, the Newfoundland war novels. I loved them. And in my thesis I wanted to handle the books that had been handled by other people. To touch them and see them. It was too much data, though, it would have been insane. Also I think there was ethics issues. But maybe my supervisor just told me that because she didn’t want me to push it.”

We were going downhill now, through a segment of streets where every intersection contained a roundabout, like dozens of empty plinths, or miniature parks. From above it must have appeared like that optical illusion of the circles in the grid where the lines seem to bend unbelievably. “Why do you want to know?”

“I’m curious,” said the cloud. “You can ask me something if you want.”

“I don’t have anything to ask you. I don’t know anything about how you live out here. No offense.”

“That’s not my problem,” the cloud said, sounding amused, which did strike me as alarming.

“What do you do?”

“Not much,” the cloud said. “There’s not much to do.”

“I wish for that sometimes,” I said.

Everything had begun to seem slippery, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so we walked in silence a little while. The cloud said, “You know, we’re almost out, but I know where we could find a little free library, if you want to go.”

I was a bit tired because everybody was always telling me about their local little free library and because I’d spent the last fourteen months of my life having breakdowns. Sometimes I’d resign myself to suicide over crises like being locked out of the university library system for entering my password wrong one too many times, or my supervisor’s email signed off Best instead of All the best.

This habit didn’t alarm me until I looked back on it a few years later, from somewhere else. In the city, everybody jaywalked wherever they pleased, so it was pretty easy to think as you skipped off the sidewalk and looked into the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, I dare you to run me over—see if I care!

In addition to the bad memories, I had counted so many little free libraries that I felt I’d seen every little free library available for seeing in my summer or any other. But the cloud sounded enthusiastic, and to be honest, I’d been very lonely the last few weeks and nobody had sounded enthusiastic about me in a while. “Sure, let’s go,” I said.

We came on the handmade box. I was now a connaisseur of the types of latches that are put on little free libraries, but this one fit into none of my taxonomies. The cloud seemed to watch me with excitement, although honestly, it was hard to tell. The library was well-trafficked. From the titles I’d estimate there were five or six people who dropped books here regularly. I could read some of them, so I assumed that the cloud and its kin sometimes borrowed books from the little free libraries on my end of the summer. There was a 2002 edition of an Ottawa quarterly literary magazine and a half-colored children’s coloring book, and other treasures.

The cloud brushed past me in its eagerness to pick out one of the books and we touched for the first time, though to this day I don’t think it meant to touch me, and I experienced a thrilling rush from the top of my sunburned scalp all the way into my nail beds, a feeling of the membranes of my cells loosening and diluting. I think it might be the way that the year feels when Daylight Savings Time kicks in. My friend who went to Hong Kong to teach English once called it the undead hour—the one between 2 AM and 2 AM that gets daylight-saved. He said that an hour isn’t real anyway, so if legislation skipped the day ahead four or six or three hundred hours instead of one, it would still have to be true. In Hong Kong, there’s been no Daylight Savings Time since 1979.

“Sorry,” the cloud said, handing over a slim paperback. “It’s just this is a book I dropped here, so I thought it could be fun if you took it.”

“That’s really sweet of you.” I stared at it but couldn’t decipher the text. “I’m sure it’s good.”

“I won’t spoil it.”

I knew when we were back in the last sliver of the general summer because the light was occult with the smoke of a distant fire upisland. No texture to the clouds. All the office-people would have come back downtown. Nobody sat out on their lawn because the air would itch their throat.

“Thanks,” I said to the cloud. “I know where we are now.”

“That’s funny,” the cloud said, but then when I realized what a strange thing this was to say, it was already gone.

I arrived back at my door, panting, my neck damp, I entered, I sat on my sofa. The stillness cocooned me. No cars passed. I filled a glass of water and drank it, and I felt the summer’s hand slide off the back of my neck in that moment.

I picked a silkworm out of my hair. It squirmed off my thumb and explored the quilted landscape of the back of my hand. I brought it to the doorstep and let it crawl off me onto the concrete.

The letters in the book I’d gotten were familiar now, but it was gibberish. Strings of glyphs, occasionally interspersed with spaces and other punctuation, and printers’ ornaments. I mean the kind that weren’t shaped like flora but were just ink strokes and didn’t pretend to represent any object in the natural world.

The book comforted me because it reminded me that things have an existence beyond their interpretation. In previous years I had hibernated in winter, but it was too lonely that year. I swiped right on Capricorns and Geminis and when they came over I hid the book under my bed or in my laundry basket, like a journal I thought they might try to read. After they left in the morning, I would take the book back out and caress the shapes of the words, which were like unmapped territories loved by the shape of the air. I curled up inside the valley of tksourk, admired the Martian enigma of xqex. I marvelled especially at the last word on the last page, which was ps? It made me think the whole book was a question, a bewildered whisper, in the back of a theatre during a confusing avant-garde movie maybe, when you can’t really hear what your friend is asking you, but you nod and laugh, and somehow a communication occurs between you regardless that makes you more fond of them.

Later, I lost the book when I moved out of town. I’d gotten used to forming ps? in my mind and would say it aloud to myself sometimes, quietly, even in public, for instance if I found something that puzzled me in a pleasing way—a rock shaped like a jaunty little hat, or a lapel pin for a Czech technoband. As you would expect, whenever I shaped it with my mouth, it didn’t sound the way it did in my head. It just sounded like ps? This wasn’t what I heard at all.

I wasn’t distressed to have lost the book, because I couldn’t derive any more meaning from it, anyway, than I already had, having plucked out my favoured words like the apricots from the tree that grew in the backyard of my landlords when I lived in that city. It turned out that the apricots ripened on a July weekend when the landlords briefly disappeared, and I picked them so they wouldn’t bloat, fall, split and bleed. I went out in my bare feet and up the ladder, into the cloud of the tree that tasted like the month, and I brought them back in my popcorn bowl. I washed the cute, irregular little apricots and ate them wetly one after another over the sink. They tasted still alive. But after you’ve picked all the apricots, there’s none left–except in molecular terms as their juices seep through your cilia and vessels–and that was how I felt about the book that left my possession.

Besides, I expect it didn’t want to leave home. It must still float as jetsam among the stout thrift shops and bookstores and occasionally wash up in the home of a curious somebody who takes something they want from it, and I even imagine who these people might be sometimes, but I can’t see their faces.

Maybe it came back to the cloud, who I think of fondly, although I wouldn’t know enough of its lifestyle or affections to say if it would remember me, as much as any of us remember anything. I class this story with other kind interactions I had with strangers in airports and marijuana dispensaries, and I wonder what things I’ve forgotten that strangers hold close to their hearts. I’d be embarrassed if the cloud retrieved the book and read those words I loved–I think they might mean something silly. I comfort myself that there’s something remarkable about any word, isn’t there, even if the word is moist, or mayonnaise. Words only exist by accident, and it would be easier for them to mean nothing, so I have to appreciate their effort.

Anyhow, after I moved out of town I learned the worms were called oak leafrollers. I’m sorry to pass this on to you, because the instant after I was told this, a profound bereavement passed over me. I still mourn silkworms in some obscure alcove of my heart. I think it’s possible they really are silkworms, if you see them with your head turned a certain way.

Recalibrating the writing eye

I always find when I leave drawing for a little while that, when I come back, I have to retrain my eye. Drawing and writing are both about observation; seeing what is in the world, reproducing it in a different format. Once that’s understood all craft looks like domestication. Taking in images, decomposing them, reconstituting them so somebody else can see what you see or understand something you want to tell them.

The main error I commit is drawing essentially my memory of what others have drawn. Not recalibrating against the world. I’ve gathered from talking with folks who don’t draw that the difference between these two ways of seeing isn’t always obvious to those who haven’t practiced both, and I’m not saying I have a high confidence in my ability to distinguish them in other peoples’ work. But I can feel, in my own drawing, when I’ve lost sight of what’s real and am just putting down a muscle-memorized symbol for an eye, a hand, a jacket, a pair of glasses, or whatever. It’s sort of masturbatory. I’m not drawing a hand, I’m drawing the set of strokes that I drew at another time to represent a hand.  So on and so on until the original image from life is basically lost.

Which is because brains are bad at remembering things. A memory of an event can be changed by the act of recalling it–which is the act of recoding and reinterpreting it and then putting it back in storage–and memories of images are distorted every time you have to pull them up from memory. Like a gun in a video game degrades every time you shoot it and eventually you need a new gun. You know, science.

So I was thinking about this when I was counting all the times in a particular story I used the phrase raised his eyebrows. When I write that down, I’m not really thinking about eyebrow-raising; I’m just trying to convey mild surprise or alarm. And eyebrow-raising is a kind of shorthand or symbol for that.

Sometimes there’s no point getting more precious than shorthand. The shorthand doesn’t fail to communicate; also, the pace at which a reader assimilates a shorthand is different from the pace at which they assimilate a new object, because shorthand is predictable. So designing the pace that a reader engages with new information in prose requires one to use some amount of shorthand.

But it is worth remembering that it’s a minor error of calibration; it’s reproducing a copy, reproducing other writers, reproducing past phrasing, instead of reproducing life. Even though people raise their eyebrows all the time, that isn’t the be-all of the actual experience of feeling somebody express mild surprise or alarm. Leaning on those shorthands too heavily is a signal to me that I’m not engaging thoroughly with the events that I’m trying to reproduce.

So when I do want to chase a new reproduction of an actual experience or image, that requires recalibration. In drawing, you always reference real life. And for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me to do this in writing.

For one particular story, I had an image of a helicopter in my mind, and was composing everything in the scene around this helicopter. But then when I looked up helicopters to verify a minor detail, I realized that, in the first place, I had no fucking idea what helicopters look like. I had the symbol of a helicopter in my mind, but it wasn’t calibrated against real life; it was the image of my memory of my memory of a helicopter. Actual helicopters look totally different.

My process has generally been to learn as much as I can about the real world and trust my creativity brain-algorithms to Google Deep Dream it all up into something new. But algorithms can train in the wrong direction. Just good to remember that and set aside time and space to recalibrate.




You Two Should Feel Very Lucky and ugly sexiness

My short story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” went up in Iridium Zine in April. I didn’t write a blog post for “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” earlier in the year because I already vented lots of blustery thoughts about it in the author interview for Luna Station Quarterly (which you can find here). But I also have lots of thoughts about this one.

My relationship to this story has changed somewhat between its writing and its publication. The reason for this might seem a bit tangential–I lost weight. Not a lot of weight, but enough to bring my body into legibility for a general audience. I was never heavy enough to experience the strongest cruelty of the informal social regulation that lays over all interactions between our bodies and other human beings, but I was heavy enough to feel ashamed when I ate in public. And I grew up heavy. I grew up ugly. Disheveled and often unshowered if I’m being totally honest with you. I didn’t pluck my eyebrows until I was seventeen.

The experience of living in that body and living in my current body were very different. I didn’t lose weight to love my body more–I loved my body already. I lost weight for other people. People smile at me more often. I fit into more clothes. I plan to lose enough weight that I can enjoy myself if I go to an onsen someday. Enough weight that when people’s gazes cut my way I never have to think, is it because I’m fat? And I could say, for my health and so on, but honestly, I was young enough to have no health issues related to my weight; my movement and the internal sensation of my joints and muscles don’t feel any different. In essence, all I did was purposefully normalize myself.

At that time, I had also stopped shaving my body hair. But the terror that shot through me when I went through US border security in a tank top and had to lift my arms for the indifferent young TSA agent was a dent in my confidence. I might still go back to au naturel; I liked honoring my second-wave Dykes To Watch Out For lesbian foremothers, and I spent less precious time in the shower. But at this moment I can’t handle it. It leaves you vulnerable and too seen. It stings like a nerve open to the air in a worn-down tooth.

The things that I escaped by normalizing myself are the results of a body-surveillance that I was thinking a lot about when I wrote “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky.” In the beginning, I thought of this surveillance as being about womanhood, but I no longer think that’s central to it. Certainly women are more heavily surveilled, but people will bring down the brunt of their judgement just as quickly on men with inconvenient and unattractive bodies. (Every neckbeard joke ever tossed out on Twitter by girls with perfect eyeliner still pricks at me. I’m not trying to one-up their oppression credentials or whatever, I just want to make a note.)

In fact, I think the surveillance is most centralized and intense on people of all genders with “marked” bodies, in the sense of the opposite of unmarked. Many of them are people with visible disabilities, which is not an experience I can speak to. But there is a category adjacent to that category, the “neckbeard” category, of “voluntary” ugliness, “fixable” ugliness, that betrays an unwillingness to conform to standards of public viewability and is, therefore, deeply offensive to many who believe that they have a right not to view bodies that surprise or alarm them.

So–in some ways this story used to belong to me and now it only belongs to a past me. But even though I no longer look like a person who should have written a story about being in a bad body, the experiences I had and didn’t have as a possessor of that neckbeard type of ugliness shaped me intensely. And probably it belongs to a future me as well. I’m very aware that my public legibility as a young, able-bodied, normal-weight white woman with her eyebrows plucked is fleeting and will be gone before too long. We all get old, and for all I know I’ll end up spliced in a teleporter too.

One last thing is that other than the strangenesses of living in an illegible body, when I was writing this story I was thinking about us ugly people loving each other. It astonished me when I read somebody express, on their 2009 sex-positive queer poly feminist blog (remember those?), that you didn’t have to be sexy to have good sex. Isn’t it bizarre how it had never occurred to me? That sex and love more generally wasn’t something that happened for a camera, or for an audience, or for surveillance. That you didn’t have to self-check for ugliness when you were undressing alone in your home. That you could be ugly and still find joy in your body, and appreciate the body of another ugly person.

When you kiss somebody, you don’t experience them as a visual object. You experience them through your skin. There’s no ugliness to the touch. I guess I thought that was worth writing about too.



What’s wrong in all my first drafts

The stuff I’m editing right now is totally inscrutable to me. Even though I wrote it. I mean, I wrote it a while ago, and it’s quite weird, and it’s on that edge where I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. So I’m trying to do more reflection as I edit, hone the lens, and maybe someday I’ll be able to tell if this is an interesting story or if my past self was doing serious drugs. But, you know, drugs that caused her to write a first-person voice who can’t stop going on about weird math.

I notice that there’s some second-draft changes I’ve been making a lot across stories lately. Some of them are good? Some of them are just kind of weird?

The first thing I do–I almost always have to chop at least one entire scene. Usually it’s because it was taking too long to do something that should have been done in two lines. Then I nail those two lines onto the end of the dialogue in the previous scene or the next scene.

I know what scene is getting cut before I even finish the story. But I can’t just not write that scene, because it always seems like the next logical step when I write it. I probably couldn’t even write the scene after it, the one I want to keep, if I didn’t write that middle scene. Thanks, weird middle scene, and goodbye.

The other most important structural change I always make is shoring up the ending. When I finish writing, I’m usually so relieved to be ending the damn story that I just want to be done, and the last 500 words is a vaguely related collection of deep-sounding reflections. Honestly, not sure I have managed to upgrade many of these endings from “vaguely related collection of deep-sound reflections”, but maybe they’ll get there someday. And practicing endings is one of the specific reasons I wanted to write more short stories, so in the long term, this is a positive.

Assorted prose changes I’m always making:

  • I cut the preposition half of a bunch of phrasal verbs (like cutting “up” from “looked up”.)
  • People are always looking at each other in my first drafts, so I have to get them to do other things.
  • Dialogue usually needs more pep in the second draft.
  • Every time I see “There was” or “It was” I’m like, could this literally be turned into one adjective in the next sentence? (“There was a red table, where Lee sat.” should be “Lee sat at the red table.”)
  • I think more about the unreeling of time in every sentence. When I’m writing a first draft I just want to get an action down, so I use a lot of “Lee kissed his teeth after Alex gave him a real mean look” or whatever. But I’m trying to be more strict about communicating the actual passage of time with sentence construction? Thinking about ways to do this a lot. Reflecting on the section about time in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

The booby prize: I find that I liked much longer sentences in July than I do right now. And this is almost definitely just because I’m reading The Shipping News. Here’s the start of the chapter I just read (p. 219 in my edition, which is the one with Kevin Spacey on the cover):

Quoyle jumped down the steps. He would drive. But walked first down to the dock to look at the water. The boat charged against the tire bumpers. The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage. Looked at his watch. If he stepped on it there was enough time for a cup of tea and a plate of toast at the Bawk’s Nest. Clean up the oil piece then down to Misky Bay to the marine archives. Check boats in the harbor. Supposed to be a schooner there from the West Coast.

After a couple hundred pages of this you look at the subjects of your own sentences like “What are you even doing here? I don’t need you, bud!” It’s contagious. Someday, when I’m reading another book, I’ll probably look back on these sentence subjects with fondness and miss them terribly.






Reflections on June stories

In June I wrote my first-ever short stories. Even when I was a kidlet my ambitions always ran towards novels, and then in high school when my ability to finish long projects failed I never even really gave much thought to trying out the short story. Then, mysteriously, in like January, I regained the ability to write and dug in to some very ambitious and possibly ill-advised projects which are now on ice. And finally in June I left a temp job and decided to wring something productive out of my vacation month. Blood Still Flows, one of the June short stories I’m currently hashing out the second draft for, was definitely the first thing I’d finished in ~6 years that wasn’t exclusively intended for the eyes of my Special Person Not Otherwise Specified. So: man, am I ever excited about short stories. Finishing things feels awesome.

I meant to do a short story a week, but They Came to Calgary has ended up expanding to novellette length, which means it’s probably going to be impossible to sell but maybe I’ll end up putting it up here or somewhere similar one day when I give up on it. So I count June an 80% success. In July and August I did too much travelling to write much, but in the latter half of August I got to check off another personal goal that I’ll keep under wraps for now. (I also did a lot of language study, and realized if I really apply myself and can learn a language to N3/B2-level fluency every five years that’s…a lot of languages over my whole lifetime. And similarly, if I wrote a story every week that would be a lot of stories!)

In September I’m thinking of doing a story-a-biweek to finish the two stories lurking in my Dropbox that are still WIP. There are a few deadlines I want to shoot for in fall (including a Christmas deadline for a gift). After that things will be up in the air again a bit. But I suspect the granularity and structure of the short-story-a-week format is a good way to stay accountable. Let’s see how it goes; here’s to another academic school year and maybe not being plunged into any deep depressions this time?


It’s moral fiber all the way down

Here’s the most recent thing I’ve been thinking myself into circles about. I’ve tried to write this post three times because it’s something I keep realizing for a split second then forgetting my reasoning, and I’m too upside-down to figure out if this post actually even conveys that reasoning. Also, I think this is truly entry-level ethics, the Death Cab for Cutie of ethics, and don’t want to present it as if I’m making a revelation. But perhaps it will be an interesting thing to chew on for others who have only a vague idea of the body of work behind the phrase “determinism.”

Suppose Annie and Benny are both struggling in school. They have bad grades and keep disrupting class by talking loudly to each other or arguing. They’re taken into the principal’s office one day and he tells them they have to shape up or they run the risk of having to go to that one sullen building in every hometown which tidy middle-class kids like me learned surprisingly late was for kids with vague behavioral problems and probably poverty, because tidy middle-class families never talk about it, and we never encountered any kids who had gone there and come back out.

Benny puts his nose to the grindstone and improves quickly. Annie doesn’t. She continues to get easily distracted or whatever and ends up being sent into the cursed building and Benny loses track of her and goes to a local university to get a GIS degree.

Here’s the question: Why didn’t Annie improve? Under what circumstances could we possibly say, “Annie could have done better than she did, but she didn’t try hard enough like Benny, so she failed?” In other words, under what circumstances could we say that Benny deserved his outcome and Annie deserved her outcome, and therefore justify, as a society, why Annie’s quality of life lowers?

Scenario 1: Annie just found it a lot harder. She has undiagnosed ADHD and a bad home life or something, and so she wasn’t able to apply the same focus to the problem as Benny. I think most people in my circles agree that this is sad and wouldn’t blame Annie for her outcome. The solution is to, say, get Annie on Ritalin and let her move to her nice aunt’s house and finish high school in the next town over, and the assumption is that if Annie and Benny were on an equal playing field, Annie would do just as well as Benny or even better.

Scenario 2: Annie straight-up cared less and didn’t try as hard. Annie has a fine home life and no underlying impairments, she just doesn’t care about school and decided she wanted to play Call of Duty instead. To make the problem clear, let’s say that Scenario 2 Benny has lots against him, which is why he was having trouble at school–he often goes to school hungry and has to work a part-time job–yet when he applied himself, he succeeded where Annie failed.

This is the scenario where I think everyday assignment of blame starts to break down. I think lots of people would attribute good qualities to Benny, let’s call them moral fiber, and bad qualities to Annie.

It seems to me like the sort of “folk model” of good and bad outcomes is that everyone has the same amount of moral fiber (you can also think of it as motivation). (I should note, too, that the folk model of where I live, a very liberal urban area in Canada, is likely quite different from the folk model others may draw.) Some people have bad circumstances which understandably affect how they draw on their moral fiber. I think most people find this generally sympathetic, even if they don’t judge situations as we would expect them to judge them based on the model. For instance, most people in Scenario 1 have sympathy for Annie who has bad circumstances, and are happy to see her enter better circumstances so she has greater capacity to utilize her moral fiber. But Scenario 2 Annie is very unsympathetic. She had no excuse–she just decided not to draw on her moral fiber.

But if Scenario 2 Annie has the same amount of moral fiber as Benny, why doesn’t she use it? What causes her to make a decision to be “bad” and Benny to make a decision to be “good”? It has to be some internal factor that differs between them, right? A factor whose presence causes them to care about school? A factor whose presence permits them to decide whether to do unfun things like studying instead of fun things like playing Call of Duty so they can have better outcomes in the long term?

Isn’t that just…moral fiber again? (Moral fiber2, maybe?) So if it’s moral fiber2 you use to decide to use your moral fiber, and Annie and Benny have the same amount of moral fiber2, why on earth did Annie not do the same thing as Benny? Or if they don’t have the same amount, does moral fiber2 vary between people, and if so, does that variance come from genetics or environment, and if either, isn’t it also not fair to expect Annie to magically accumulate more of it? Or is it also supposed to come from some internal virtue, and if so, how far down do I have to go before it becomes clear that moral fiber3, moral fiber4, and moral fiber5 all have the same logical problem?

So you begin to see why there doesn’t seem to be a point in assigning moral blame to Annie. It’s logically much more consistent to say that the decision to not study was itself instilled by genetics or environment, neither of which Annie could control.

I obviously recognize that not everyone thinks society has a duty to ensure everyone under its aegis lives a life reasonably free of avoidable suffering. But even many of those people would agree, I think,  that this folk model comes packaged with the idea that society does have a responsibility to protect two types of people: people who work according to its expectations to produce value (it would be “unfair” if after Benny’s work his teachers failed him just because they dislike him) and people whose environments and genetics are judged to have prevented them from working according to its expectations (for an extreme example that I don’t think will cause any object-level quibbling, it would be “unfair” if Cala, who has Down Syndrome, had her family killed in a car crash and died of preventable injuries in the hospital because she couldn’t figure out how to handle health insurance and nobody would help her). But for the third group of people, who don’t work according to society’s expectations but don’t visibly have genetics or environment to prevent them from doing so, society relies on moral fiber to justify withdrawing its support, and it doesn’t seem like moral fiber is a very solid foundation. If you become convinced there’s no such thing, as I have, everybody falls into the second category and society has a duty to care for them. Right?

I have no idea how to solve this problem except with highfalutin long-term ideas like UBI. If Annie and Benny can both live reasonably happy lives even if Annie, by genetics or environment, has much less moral fiber than Benny and doesn’t study or show up for work on time, then we don’t have to assign her bad outcomes based on something she can’t control. Benny might get a slightly better outcome even then, but trying to regulate how good an outcome Benny gets is a bit sour even for me. But then, can we even morally justify being okay with Benny getting extra just because of his genetics or environment?

Queer is the map, not the territory

Epistemic status: I only write to hear myself talk; please read in a tone of bafflement and not condescension.

I’m gearing up to read Whistling in the Dark, a collection of 21 interviews with Indian men in various homosexual and homosexual-adjacent behaviour patterns collected by R. Raj Yao and Dibyajyoti Sharma. Here are some things its first bit reminded me of that it’s easy to forget going to an upper-class university with a rainbow-painted crosswalk (and not even the slick six-color, I’m talking the original Baker Eight, magenta sex included, you better believe).

A. Shit is really bad for some of us out there and no matter how life-and-death Internet baby fights feel sometimes, we Westerners owe at least, at least to our faraway sibs the respect of giving a thought to their stories sometimes, and that doesn’t mean using them as a rhetorical tool to bash other WEIRD Internet gays, and yes I recognize that I’m sounding real smug for a person who just read three chapters of one book, but it’s much more a reminder to myself (drowned recently in the old Discourse Spiral) than a subtweet at anyone else in particular.

B. Queer is the map, not the territory. Lesbian is the map, bisexual is the map, trans is the map. Are we still conducting ourselves like we’ve uncovered some secret truth present in all the world and named and defined only by us and taxonomied like plant life? I’m asking, does it make any more sense to call hijra “Indian trans women” than to call trans women “Western hijra?” I feel like there’s this sense that there are “cultural genders and sexualities” and then there’s, you know, the scientifically proven LGBT rights which we need to Educate everyone about. Or maybe this is just something I filtered myself because it’s not like I’m in any position of enlightenment, I just thought of this like two weeks ago. I’m just saying  we’re still out here beating each other up over fuzzy sets with definitions we invented ourselves. I’m just thinking even the most expansive term we have, “queer,” like, queer is also a cultural sexual orientation. Where is our shared territory? Gender dysphoria and crossdressing and same-sex sexual/romantic behaviour? Or is that list itself influenced by what seems queer to me?

Here’s the R. Raj Rao list of who’s represented in the interviews: gay, bi, MSM, hijra, koti. MSM is what gets to the heart of what I mean I think. Even when it comes to rural Westerners, there’s men who have sex with men but would never consider themselves gay or bi. Are we really going to be out here enthusiastically telling them that their definition of gay is wrong and they’re wrong about their sex identities? That they’re gay whether they like it or not? Guys! We made it up! Just like we made up everything in our hoarder’s closet of a semantic collection of concepts loosely linked by association! Just like everyone did!

How to avoid doing eugenics: Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles”

I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles here. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.

This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”

I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.

I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.

And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.

Guinea Coast art (and statue genitalia) at the Museum of Anthropology

I went to MoA just for fun when I was in Vancouver this weekend and not for a specific research purpose, but, as I should have expected, they had some really beautiful objects from my area of research! (INT, MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, DAY: Meg stands in front of the ibeji statues, looking sidelong at other visitors and wondering how much they would mind if she suddenly interrupted their conversations to infodump about the statues’ missing penises.) Now that their online collections are back up, I had to go digging a little further.

The statues were particularly interesting because many of the males are missing their dicks, not to mince words. In Abiodun’s Yoruba Art and Language, he says that the penis and breasts of ibeji statues (these are statues created in memory of twins if one or both die) are considered to be the parts that really show a person is a master carver, because they protrude from the body and require a pleasing shape. I have to remember I’m no art historian and one source isn’t a scholarship, but I did immediately wonder whether the carvers of these statues were just not willing to risk messing up the part that would make people judge them, like an early artist on devArt who always draws figures with their hands clasped behind their backs, or if some faint-of-heart art collector had just chopped them off at some point, because heaven forfend there be a penis in the home of a respectable white art collector. This is obviously the story that gets my grit up, and I’m even tempted to email the collections people to ask if they know about the history of these particular objects, but I also can’t assume too hard that this isn’t the way they originally were made! Regional and personal styles are definitely a thing. But still…I mean, take a look at these poor babies.

Courtesy of the MoA Online Collection.

These are male figures according to the MoA. Since I saw them I’ve been going crazy with Google Search trying to figure out if their whole groinal area was how the carver made it, normal wear (perhaps because ibeji statues are often handled lovingly over many years) or an act of vandalism of some kind. The more innocent theories are looking more and more plausible, but I also don’t know what might have happened to the other figures in major art collections which turn up in cursory searches!


We believe pretty much anything we’re told, which was great in a time when we were only ever told things by our close family and friends (who probably saw those things firsthand) but not so great now that we’re constantly being told things by strangers. Lots of people, including me, like to think of themselves as not so credible; but there’s so many things I’ve just accepted because my friends told me they were true, and so many things I’ve relayed from some random on the Internet–usually with enough epistemic honesty at least to mention my source and say “take this with a grain of salt”–without knowing whether they were backed up by evidence.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons. One is the election we’ve all already thought too much about–but at the same time can’t safely stop thinking about, like, the second I wanted to stop thinking about it Trump named Steve Bannon chief strategist.  I was used to thinking of the Breitbart people as ideological enemies of about the same calibre as 4channers, so this is almost more surreal than the presidency. Facebook fake news and blatant untruths in the far-right media were the subject of a lot of journalism leading up to the election. Leftists like to think we read the true media, but how much can we really pat ourselves on the back? We can think: I hear and believe things that are also heard and believed by NPR. But what are my reasons for believing NPR is a good source, and are those reasons any different or any more objectively rational than the reasons of somebody who trusted a Facebook news item about how Hillary went in as a commando to kill American personnel in Benghazi with nothing but a combat knife and a can of hairspray?

The other reason is that I’ve been reading about Yoruba epistemology in Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft by Hallen and Sodipo. It so happens this is actually my first introduction to formal epistemological philosophy outside a semantics classroom, so I’m sure to some extent the stuff I’m astonished by is old hat–the Quine chapter completely blew my mind right out of the gate and there’s another blog post to be written about that. The writers complicate the traditional translations of mo (translated as “knowing”) and gbagbo (translated as “believing”). Mo ideally is seeing with one’s eyes. Gbagbo they translate as agreeing to accept what you have heard. And of course there are many other languages where the speaker marks propositions to tell the hearer how they came by the information–hearsay, seeing with your own eyes, inferring from context, heard it on Facebook.

Once in an anthropology intro class my TA tried to explain the point of view of some Indigenous opposition to the Land Bridge Theory: “There’s different ways of knowing than just the scientific one.” The snide white jokester she was talking to was like “You mean the truth?” I believe in the scientific project and in objective knowledge but, I mean, come on. That guy doesn’t mo that people moved from Siberia to America tens of thousands of years ago, he just gbagbos it. (From what I’ve read, I gbagbo it too, but what the hell, I wasn’t there.) Just accepting what you were taught by one person as opposed to what you would have been taught by a different person if you had been born in 1200 in a Kwakwaka’wakw settlement doesn’t necessarily make your thing true and their thing fake. Believing this seems to be the root of a lot of unnecessary smugness–yeah, yeah, including my liberal smugness. Either way you’re just accepting what you hear unless you’re willing to start digging much deeper, and digging deep on everything you hear isn’t really feasible. (Though a Year of Living Biblically – style epistemology project where I fact-check everything I hear for a year sounds surprisingly interesting.)

At the same time, it’s hard to dislodge your ego and take material seriously that contradicts your ideology. You have to kind of virtualize your belief set and run their OS alongside yours so you can safely delete it when you want to go back to normal. And I don’t think I’d want it any other way–I don’t want to internalize material I believe to be false–but are my reasons for not wanting that even valid? How would I know if my belief was false and the OS I installed just to try out a few programs was true?

I feel glumly Sapir-Whorf about the idea that maybe languages with evidential markers encourage their speakers to avoid categorizing material we hear in the same bin as material we experienced firsthand. That’s definitely a topic for further research, though, not a real theory. Don’t quote me. Definitely don’t think of that as something you know.