In Which Several Eccentricities Find An Explanation

6 April 2003

Maybe Daylight Savings Time will mean that I'm sleeping in to a later hour. That'd be good. Maybe.

The spinach and artichoke dip turned out well, and people praised it. One of the other guests even took some home in a plastic bag, which amused me. We had a good time, and I think Amber did, too. And the birthday cake was up to even my snobbish standards.

It was a little strange to be at a party with a bunch of strangers at this point in our lives, though. More for Mark than for me: I just tell people I write books, because it's true, I do. And that's kind of neat. But for the last several years, it's been simple enough to explain what Mark does. Now it's a formulation that only covers up to June, maybe the rest of the summer, and after that, he's not a Stanford grad student who works part-time at a start-up any more. He's Dr. Gritter, who does...something in academia or industry or academia and industry. He was mentioning the most likely possibility last night, and with it the prospects of moving.

And it is hard to explain to people why their home is not your home. Or why you hate living in the place they love. It's not easy, and they're always taken aback. I have an easier time with the firm California partisans, because I can basically explain to them that all the little things they love are not my things, and that I have a whole different set of little things that I love. They understand that. It's the people who are moderately indifferent to their location who are the hardest for me, because then I have to explain why it matters at all, and that's a much bigger leap than why it matters differently.

(The very easiest people are the ones who live in the Bay Area for political reasons. I used to try to explain the three- or four- or six-ring-circus that is Minnesota politics. The beautiful, entertaining, messy circus, and how I love to watch the whole thing and not just the progressive arm. How being private is not the same thing as being repressed. Etc. Now I find it's just easier to whip out the Wellstone: "My state elected Paul Wellstone for two terms running, until he died, and it's not liberal-progressive enough for you? How many of your senators voted last fall against the 'use of force' in Iraq? Let's keep score on this one, shall we?" They usually laugh and concede that maybe it's not as much of a monoculture in the Midwest as they like to think. Much more of a monoculture out here, I think.)

Anyway, so...other than that, I worked a bit and read a lot yesterday. I finished The Rope Trick, and the ending was quite disappointing to me, but I enjoyed the rest of the book. I sat down and read all of Tamora Pierce's Emperor Mage, which was fun, and it probably played even better to its intended audience than to me. And in with working and cooking and all that, I read John Barnes' The Sky So Big and Black. Which I hated.

I always hesitate to say things like that, especially since WorldCon, where I met VeryNiceAuthor, whose short stories I dislike intensely. But he was so nice. (Actually, I met at least three people of that description at WorldCon. Sadly? Happily? I don't know. The world needs fewer jerks, to be sure, but it could also do with more good writers, so if I could just be the talent fairy....) So I worry about writing that I hated John Barnes' book, in case John Barnes turns out to be the sweetest guy ever and ego surfs and feels all hurt that I dissed his book so completely. But hey, I read his book, right? That's something, at least. Here's the thing: first, I found the dialect annoying and inconsistent. (Posreal. Dinwanna. The inability to say "was." These characters talked, about half the time, like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. It would even have been better if it had been all the time. Bleah.) Second, the main characters both managed to annoy the crap out of me. Barnes made a big deal about how one of them deserved full adult status at 15, and how (since it was a frontier culture) she was likely to get it, but she seemed to have the approximate maturity of a 10-year-old, and that's being generous. Temper tantrums and a bigoted streak are not the most endearing things to have as the major characteristics of a character. Also, the pseudo-Heinleinian father figure, voice of truth, justice, and the author's way of thinking, made me want to fling the book across the room.

I know what it is! Oh, dang, I just figured it out. Barnes decided to write a Heinleinian juvenile and picked Podkayne of Mars to pattern it on. As our Curt would say, hork.

There was a third and a fourth and possibly a fifth and a sixth in there as well, but I am entirely deflated by my Podkayne revelation. I hated that book so much. I would collect the rest of Heinlein's works (we already have many of them), but I will not pay my own money for a copy of that one. I think my hatred of it is so visceral because I'd been pretty well enjoying Heinlein up to that point, and then that thing accentuated everything I had disliked about previous books while adding new things to dislike, hurrah.

I haven't read any other John Barnes novels. Are they all more or less Like That, or did I start with a bad one?

You know what it reminded me of? When I was in debate, the varsity people were allowed, even encouraged, to serve as judges for the tournaments that were specifically set up for novice and j.v. forensics geeks -- speech and debate stuff. We got paid and all, so off I went to judge. Got assigned several rounds of speech, and in my HI/DI (humorous interp/dramatic interp) round, there was this girl who had picked a piece where an eight-year-old whines to her mother about why she can't go to the store. It was appalling in both concept and execution. And that's exactly what The Sky So Big And Black read like to me.

I don't recall if I gave that kid last in the round or not. I wanted to give three lasts that round, out of six speakers. HI/DI can be some scary bad stuff. I didn't judge that much of it, but oy. There was one guy who actually made me laugh, and he was reading from Catch-22. There were lots of girls who believed that if they got to scream, that was the essence of drama. Or else if they got to cry. They were not allowed to bring scenery with them, but they chewed it anyway. Many, many times, I wrote, "There is more to drama than screaming."

Because of these interludes, every once in awhile my brain supplies lines like, "Wait for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight -- I'll come to thee by moonlight," and at that point, the dramatic emotional throb of fourteen-year-old girl-voices in every state of this country is too much for me, and I want to scream and hide under the bed until the highwayman goes riding back into the mists of time where he belongs. I have made an anti-highwayman career choice, thanks.

I think this explains much about the eccentricities of speech and debate coaches and particularly our own well-loved Doc Tichy. If I spent all of Friday and Saturday (as well as all day every weekday) with thirteen-to-nineteen-year-olds, most of whom were reading either "The Highwayman" or Sartre, I might pick up a few (more) odd habits myself. I might deliberately maintain a regional accent from a region I hadn't inhabited for 25 years. I might hang posters for Ned's Atomic Dustbin on my classroom walls. I might become obsessed with "politicking." I might bellow "Mary marry merry" over and over again at Midwestern students who think it's all the same word and take great glee in the "S.H.I.T.S.!" lesson every year. It might not bother me if I bore a more-than-passing resemblance to a scaled-down Bela Karolyi. Okay, so that one would probably still bother me, no matter how many 17-year-olds were arguing about Kierkegaard in my presence every day of the week. But the other stuff really only stands to reason.

(I explained S.H.I.T.S. here before, right, or else you already know it? Significance, harms, inherency, topicality, and solvency. It's how you attack or analyze a proposed policy in policy debate: is the problem it solves really a big problem? What harmful results might ensue from this plan? Would the change occur with a different plan or is it inherent to this particular policy? Does it focus on the problem at hand or just do something slightly related? Does it make a big dent in the problem? Some of it is a little repetitive, but it works pretty well for real life policy proposals as well. And it's amazing how much real life policy debates are like high school policy debate, in that both sides want you to believe that nuclear winter is the outcome of their opponent's position. They're also like high school Lincoln-Douglas debate in that both sides want you to believe that their opponents support Stalin, Hitler, or both, with a little Mao and Pol Pot thrown in.)

(I would say this is one of the more useful things I learned in high school, but it was really more of a label for useful things I already knew.)

I now have the mad urge to write a short story featuring a van full of high school forensics geeks. Maybe if I sit very still and am very quiet, it will go away.

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