Journal: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012

1 p. m., downtown Tim Hortons

Drizzly with a high in the teens(!). Picked this day to take the bike, without a jacket or umbrella of course…I will be absolutely soaked. Ah well…

Nervous because I went back for a follow-up dentist appointment and they think the tooth has a fracture and that’s what’s irritating the bone and the (periodont?). So sending me to Grad Endo to see what can be done. I really can’t afford a root canal. Will probably end up having the damn thing extracted. Then getting a night guard!

[

] Think de Beauvoir and Sartre. Probably why I will end up as a lone cat lady!

Budget process, too. Fills me with despair, a kind of visceral fear that I’m not sure my fellow wonks “get”. I suppose they rely on fewer public services. Transit mostly.

Also because, I think, of the extra $[    ] last month, they say my OW is temporarily cut off. (For how long? How do I get on Trillium? How much do my drugs cost out of pocket? Too many unanswered questions.) To finally get a chunk of change that could substantially improve my life — and then to have to spend it on dental work — it’s right out of a Yiddish curse. No wonder I grind my teeth.

A sombre What I’m Reading

Pat Capponi, Upstairs in the Crazy House (1992)

A memoir of the author’s post-institutionalized life in one of Parkdale’s infamous boarding houses, with flashbacks to her abusive childhood and the roots of her depression. She chronicles poverty, fleas, abandonment, addiction, and the determination to assert one’s humanity in the face of a system bent on denying it.

Capponi has since become a prominent mental health and housing advocate here in Toronto, making the city a little more humane. Once, after a spell of suicidality, I was able to stay in the Gerstein Centre which she had a hand in establishing. It helped restore the dignity that the P. E. S. U. strips away from you; I’ll always be grateful.

Stevie Cameron, On the Farm (2010)

The book on the Pickton case. Seriously, there’s nothing I’ve read about in the news from the ongoing inquiry that isn’t in On the Farm.

Cameron focuses on the lives and personalities of the missing women throughout, an emphatic unspoken assertion that they were not “disposable”, they were not worthless, they were talented and vivacious and loving and loved women—their relatives fought for years to get the Vancouver police to take the disappearances seriously. In some cases the VPD flat-out lied to the families to get them to go away; and upper brass refused to let top profiler Kim Rossmo help investigate. To the VPD, women who were poor and addicted and prostitutes and (it’s impossible to deny this had an influence) Native weren’t worth finding.

(Slutwalk is happening right now; stayed in and wrote this up instead. Is SW relevant to impoverished mentally ill women? To addicted Native women in sex work? I suspect not but I’d love to be proven wrong.)

What I’m Reading, #32: Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)

“You are living with it, Bob.”

“Do you call this living?” I sneer, sitting up and wiping my nose with another of his million tissues.

“[…] Let me strike home for once, Bob. Let this sink in: you are living.”

“…Well, I suppose I am.” It is true enough: it is just not very rewarding.

Yesterday [July 13] was a rough day, but at least it was productive and I can rest for a bit instead of excoriating myself for being lazy. I have always had a very hard time getting myself to make phone calls. It’s even worse now because, living in a basement apartment, I get poor reception and often have to go outside to ensure the person on the other end of the line can hear me and I don’t get cut off. And sometimes I have trouble getting to the point where I can leave the house, which is probably hard to understand for anyone who has no experience with clinical depression. It takes a long time to wake up and get dressed and feed myself, and sometimes the mere thought of being around other people—even just fellow tenants or passersby on the street—is just too intimidating.

Hence it had been weeks and I still hadn’t called to schedule a doctor’s appointment or get in touch with my social worker. I finally decided that it was easier to go to the hospital (where my family doctor is) and make an appointment in person than to phone (and it was, despite being about a gazillion degrees out), and on the way back I stopped in the park to read Gateway and work up my nerve to call the social worker.

Gateway is a Big Dumb Object novel, set in a future where Earth and the colonies on Mars and Venus have become desperately overcrowded and resource-poor. Gateway is an asteroid-turned-spaceport long since abandoned by the (apparently) vanished alien race known as the Heechee. It’s filled with small ships programmed to go on round-trips to specific destinations. The problem is, there’s no way to figure out where they’re going to go and what’s at the other end. Enterprising prospectors might bring back priceless Heechee technology—or end up burned to a crisp or dead of radiation sickness or simply travelling so long they run out of rations and starve.

Our hero, Robinette Broadhead (“in spite of which I am male”), heads to Gateway hoping to strike it rich and escape the mines of Wyoming forever. The story switches between his time in Gateway and when he has returned to Earth, fabulously wealthy but spending a lot of time with his robot psychotherapist, alternately denying he has a problem and shying away from a place of acute emotional pain. Something awful happened during his trips out, and nearly all the book is spent hinting at and building up to that revelation.

I was expecting sensawunda along the lines of Chiang or Watts, but Gateway is primarily an exploration of the human mind. Well, one very fucked-up human mind, at least. When Broadhead gets to Gateway he loses his nerve and spends most of his time in a state of boredom and terror, distracting himself with other prospectors’ going-away or coming-home parties, or sex—with a woman who, despite her previous experience, has also become too scared to ship out. Of course, eventually he does go—and most of the trip is also stultifyingly boring, spent crammed in a can uncomfortably close to his fellow explorers.

(Some novels are said to have a good “sense of place”; Gateway has sense of time. The way anxiety drags out time, or compresses it.)

The therapy scenes (lying in the grass, sweating through my shirt even in the shade of a tree) really got to me, a lot more than I thought they would. I hate talking to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and such, I generally don’t like telling them about that kind of thing, and I’ve had to do it for years. So even the scenes in Gateway, with Broadhead snarkily parroting Freudian jargon to Sigfrid, rattled me.

I think what I hate is the feeling of exposure. Self-loathing, maybe; I feel like I’m an ugly, mediocre mess beneath a fragile veneer of normalcy. So having to open myself up to examination, whether it’s a psychiatrist asking about my depression or a social worker inspecting my bank statements, is just the most terrifying thing. Perhaps because of so much therapy in my childhood, or not getting a lot of privacy growing up in general, I have an urgent need for privacy now.

(I couldn’t explain any of this to my social worker, though. I could only say, yes, I know I should have phoned you weeks ago. No, I can’t explain why I didn’t. No explanation is coming. I just want to be let alone.)

You just sort of have to keep going, and let yourself feel things as they happen. Looking back on things, I think I prefer the fear and anxiety and self-recrimination and all that. It’s better than numbness, because it feels like you’re actually losing time—like time is going by and you haven’t spent it doing anything. I hate drifting. It’s just hard to pull yourself out some of the time.

“It is exactly what I call living. And, in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”

What I’m Reading, #24-26

#21-23 will take a little while longer to write up.

24. Samuel Delany, Babel-17/Empire Star

I like my Sapir-Whorf hypotheses like I like my coffee: very strong!…no? Tough crowd. What I like about Delany is how central poetry and song and storytelling are to him. Poetry doesn’t seem really important nowadays, at least to me. You can’t make a living as a poet or anything. But in Delany’s stories (and maybe especially in Babel-17) poetry is vitally relevant. Rydra Wong, as a poet, can see the world in a different and valuable way, and her work makes a tremendous difference to people.

I liked Babel-17 well enough but preferred the convoluted timeline of Empire Star, which follows a boy coming of age and ascending in consciousness, and in which there’s fewer characters than first appear to be.

25. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

In a postapocalyptic Sudan where magic coexists with (sparse, deteriorating) technology, a “child of violence” is destined to reshape her society. Brutal and uncompromising. Fills my head with vivid unearthly colours. The prose could be better, but it gets the job done.

(I have many more thoughts about this book, but they’re kitchen-table thoughts, not impersonal-Internet thoughts.)

26. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

Enjoyable but not terribly memorable. Miles solves a mystery while he and Ivan are on a diplomatic mission to the heart of the Cetagandan empire, which is ruled by a genetic elite—ruled, in turn, by women working behind the scenes. I laughed out loud at “I don’t think it was ripe, Ivan.” I wondered if Bujold even knew about epicene pronouns.

One interesting aspect is how Miles uses disability stereotypes to fly under the radar—or, if you’d like, cover his ass:

“You would have taken the investigation away from me, you know you would have, sir. Everyone in the wormhole nexus thinks I’m a cripple who’s been given a cushy nepotistic sinecure as a courier. That I might be competent for more is something Lieutenant Vorkosigan would never, in the ordinary course of events, ever be given a chance to prove.”

Sadly, the library system has only one copy of the next book, Ethan of Athos, so it seems that I’m not going to be continuing the series for a while.

What I’m Reading, #12-17

12. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (2005)

Thought I’d re-read this, as Tor.com readership recently voted it best of the decade. I don’t think it’s nearly that good (especially compared to contenders like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Blindsight), but it’s funny, poignant, and almost consistently enjoyable — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t normally touch military SF (aside from Bujold).

13. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

You can tell I’m getting close to exhausting the library holdings when I start dipping into its meagre stock of popular science books. Bryson is an entertaining writer, but geeks won’t learn anything new here. I would recommend this book as a starting point for people who have never taken a science class, ever, even in public school — with the caveat that they watch a whole lot of Mythbusters and keep Wikipedia open, because there is an irritating amount of myths, massive oversimplifications, and outdated material.

14-17. Scott Westerfeld, Uglies (2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007)

Tore through this YA dystopian series set in a city-state where everyone is beautified and promoted to a life of carefree luxury on reaching sixteen. Through the hero, a teenage girl named Tally, we get a whirlwind tour through various social classes: insecure young Uglies, rebellious runaways, vapid Pretties, the covert ruling class of Specials. Extras portrays a “reputation economy” a little like the one in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but actually done well. The big reveal at the end of the series is totally bogus, but it’s a well-established genre tradition, so I can hardly nitpick.

The Uglies books are especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First, while most dystopias are portrayed as more or less immutable thought-experiments, throughout the series we see Tally’s society changing quite radically in response to inside and outside pressures. The story also deals extensively and unusually thoughtfully with themes of the body, dis/ability, “nature”, and medicalization.

What I’m Reading, #8

Milorad Pavi?, Dictionary of the Khazars (1984, transl. 1988)

Yeah. I read it. Liked it well enough, and have absolutely nothing to say about it. Possibly because the return of my long-running sleep problems (unable to get to sleep till quite late, then sleeping for twelve hours) has made it unable to sustain intelligent thought, focus on work, or muster up any genuine enthusiasm. I think I am faking it decently, though; it terrifies me how little people would think of me if they knew how stupid I really was.

The Khazars, by the way, are very interesting…

What I’m Reading

These three books were published together as Young Miles (1997); Warrior’s Apprentice and The Mountains of Mourning are available from the Baen Free Library.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Warrior’s Apprentice (1986)

After spectacularly failing the military entrance exams, Miles creates his own mercenary company out of chutzpah and sheer bullshit. Far-fetched almost to the point of contrivance, as a caper should be. A cracking good read except for a few bits that I expect will always make me cringe. (I’m thinking of the treatment of a non-binary-gendered minor character here, who is referred to with a quaintly bigoted term and dehumanizing, if not outright hostile [and thankfully rarely used] pronouns. I know it’s ignorance, not malice, but still.)

Warrior’s Apprentice had some very dark parts, of course, but it’s hard not to be carried along by Miles’s “forward momentum”—an irrepressible confidence that he can talk his way out of (or into) anything.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Mountains of Mourning (1989)

But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation.

I confess that as I read this novella, in which Miles is sent out to the backcountry to investigate the murder of a disabled newborn—I was dreading that it would go an entirely different way. Can you blame me? Eugenicist sympathies pervade even the most genteel liberal milieus, in our world and even Bujold’s half-parodied, half-idealized Beta Colony (where parents require permits to have children, and disabled fetuses are routinely aborted if they can’t be made “normal” with galactic-standard medicine). Which is why I was both relieved and frustrated by the end, where Miles proposes that a primary school be founded in the hill-country, because a little elementary education will end centuries of infanticide—and more importantly the motives for infanticide. Really?

Lest anyone think I’ve stamped a giant red “PROBLEMATIC!” label on the entire Vorkosigan saga and am boycotting it from here on out—well, no. I think Bujold’s treatment of disability is extremely interesting thus far, the failures and successes alike. For example, the discrepancies between her depictions of physical and mental disabilities are thought-provoking. And that the series is centred around a disabled hero and thus issues of ableism, disability, and the body take centre stage is remarkable in its own right.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game (1990)

After graduating from the Imperial Military Academy, Miles gets a posting on a remote, frozen island to learn subordination. Instead he ends up getting arrested for mutiny, then sent off to regain control of the Dendarii Mercenaries and avert an interplanetary war. (And rescue a very important hostage and outwit a villain nearly as fiendishly manipulative as himself.) Enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that the MilSF-style cozy murder mystery The Vor Game was shaping up to be would have been just as fun.