In Which Various Aspects of Civilization Get Too Much Consideration

24 April 2003

We already knew that I was not a Gary Paulsen fan. I had read Hatchet lo, these many moons ago, when some grade school teacher or another thought it was the hottest thing to get kids to read. It's just like the rest of Paulsen's oeuvre: starry-eyed primitivism, essentially. Boy survives with just a hatchet, becomes a better person out in the wild, blah blah etc. blah. I read The Winter Room when we were up home for World Fantasy, because Loni recommended it so highly, and it was so short. (Loni has probably not appeared here before. She's a close friend of Bobbie's. Bobbie, for those of you who have arrived late to the game and not bought a souvenir program, is Timprov's mother.) I was no more thrilled with The Winter Room than with Hatchet, but at least it wasn't exactly the same thing.

And neither was Winterdance...except that it was. There are two passages that, taken together, seem key to me. There's one where an old Inuit guy is talking to Paulsen in the middle of the Iditarod, and the old guy asks Paulsen if it's better, living life up in the cold with the dogs. And Paulsen says yes, it is. Not maybe, not sort of, not in some ways. Just yes. The second passage is at the end, the coda, where the doctor tells Paulsen he has heart disease, and wham, just like that, he gives up the dogs and the racing and the whole bit. He doesn't even say goodbye to the dogs. He makes sure someone has gotten them and the equipment away before he gets home.

(Giving up the racing would sit worse with me than it does, if he'd ever really stated a reason for doing it in the first place. A reason, mind you, not an emotion or sensation he felt while doing it. But giving up the dogs without goodbye -- one of the first rules I know is that you say goodbye to your animals when you have to, unless some major emergency has intervened. And if it's them that's going, you try to ease it, and if it's you, you make sure they have somewhere to go with someone to take care of them -- which Paulsen did -- but either way, you say goodbye if you possibly can. Of course it's hard. Obviously it's hard. But you're the human, and you signed on for the hard bits. It is not okay to say oh, wait, I changed my mind about that, no hard parts for me, thanks.)

(It's not that I think he's a bad guy. He did find another home for the dogs. He's just kind of a dumbass, and also a hypocrite.)

Where were we? Hypocrite, right. That's where we were going as well as where we got to: if it's really better to live with the dogs in the snow, why didn't he? Why did it matter what his doctor said about his heart? If it's really worse the way we live "down here," in civilization, why is he clinging to it so hard? Why have more of a worse life instead of some of a better one? And if it's not worse, why the hell does he say that it is? If his ending about, "Wahhhh, how can I live without the dooooogs?" is meaningful, why doesn't he show that he made some attempt to live with the dogs and without the Iditarod? Why is he so dumb?

Argh. I think it's just that I have very little patience for claims of some superior primitive lifestyle, especially when the author doesn't even bother justifying why it's superior. I am also rather low on patience for people who claim that some choice is generally superior, do not pursue it, and do not explain why.

But mostly it's the dog thing. He did all sorts of stupid things that put his dogs at risk, and was very lucky nothing happened to them. Then he dropped them like proverbial hot potatoes and whined about how it affected him. A lot of things in both categories seemed totally avoidable with a little thought, planning, or research. Sigh. Bleah.

Karina's last entry commented on Eco-Challenge people not having any clue what they'd gotten in for -- "Have they ever watched the Eco-Challenge?" -- and I felt like Paulsen was the same way with the Iditarod, only with no press coverage swooping in on people who screwed up majorly, and with dogs' lives at risk. I'll still probably watch some of the Eco-Challenge with Timprov when it comes on in this country, though. It'll be fun. Karina converted me at least a little. And no dogs are harmed in the making of it, as far as I know.

As if to underscore the joys of civilization after reading that Gary Paulsen book, the universe (in the form of its minion, PG&E) gave us a two-hour power outage last night. Not the end of the world, but I do like to have the computer and, you know, lights. Refrigeration. Those little things. Timprov wasn't up yet. Mark and I got out a bunch of candles and sat around the kitchen table reading. I worked a bit on the Not The Moose in my paper journal. We used up two stinky candles from Christmas, so now the kitchen (dining room, living room) still smells like fake vanilla.

I read more slowly by candlelight, it turns out, or maybe it was the whole process: read a few pages. Candle flickers and distracts. Stand up and look at the dark block outside. Crane head to see if any power company truck is visible. Sigh deeply. Mope. Ponder the number of places to go if there was a power outage somewhere civilized. Consider making list of superior options; refrain. Write a few lines in journal. Pour out excess wax from "cup" candles. Wipe spilled wax from kitchen table. Poke at warm wax. Wander down dark hallway with candle on candlestick. Feel like a novel character. Wonder how they managed to make themselves walk slowly all the time so as not to put out the candle or spill wax. Return to kitchen table with candlestick. Read a few more pages. Repeat.

Still, I got some work done, and I read some of Patrick O'Leary's The Gift, and that counts for something, right? The whole not giving up and collapsing in a miserable heap thing? (Not over the power. The power is entirely secondary. But the power fuels several of my best distractions.)

This is my second O'Leary novel, and so far I'd describe both of them as "self-conscious." Well-done, but also quite, quite aware of What He Is Trying To Do, and making sure that I, the reader, am aware, too. Bully for both of us.

Living out here, I seem to meet a lot of people who are, for some sense of the word, writers. People who will make the claim of being writers, at the very least, or of wanting to try. Without a day job, this is most of who I meet, and it begins to look like the norm. It wasn't like that when I was a nuclear physics grad student. No matter how many of them I met at work, I never really felt like it was something really everyone did or wanted to do or planned to do if only they could find the time. Nobody hears that you're in nuclear physics and says, "Oh yeah, I've been working on a paper on the heavier tungsten isotopes...I just don't have the time I'd like for it." Nobody ever hears that you're a nuclear physicist and says, "I always liked that kind of thing when I was in high school" or "I thought I'd give that a shot when [the kids start school | the kids go to college | I retire]." And nobody ever, ever, ever thinks that they'd like to do a little of it on the side for some easy cash.

I think that's just normal for a fairly literate population, though -- most people I encounter have a closer relationship with books than with alpha particles. At least, they're aware of a closer relationship. Out here, though, we see Mark's work people once in a great while, and otherwise, I tend to meet writers or people who are involved with writers. When we move, that will be at least a little different, because we already have friends up home, and I haven't heard them give indications that they might want to become writers. And they most likely also have friends, who also have at least even odds of not being writers.

(Mom tends to refer to Minneapolis as "up home," and I've picked it up because it's convenient -- distinguishes between it and other flavors of home.)

So anyway -- not a predominance of writers. But I think it'd be good for Timprov and me to know some other writers in the area. Hmm. It's not like Minneapolis is lacking in them. We'll see when we get there. Maybe we'll just knock on Pamela Dean's door, or Lois Bujold's or Neil Gaiman's: hi! It's me! Person-you've-never-heard-of! (Well, Pamela Dean's livejournal did seem to be a bit surprised/pleased at the concept of having screaming fangirls....)

I feel like at some point I'm going to have to start writing in this journal, "We saw!" Because there have been so many things that I've said we'd see.

Mark has started turning into my grandpa, but deliberately. (Well...I'm not sure it isn't deliberate when he turns into his father, either, but that may be along the lines of "can't fight it, might as well enjoy it.") My grandpa, when he hears the word "garlic" listed as an ingredient, will say, "Ooh, that's stiff stuff!" He loves garlic and will snarf every piece of garlic bread on the table if no one else gets to it before the end of the meal. When we took him to Vivace, he ordered a pizza-like substance with a garlic dipping sauce on the side. "That's stiff stuff." Wouldn't try it until Mother and I both demonstrated its goodness and offered to eat it with bread if he didn't want it. Then he was cleaning out the bottom of the little side bowl with his finger at the end so that he didn't miss any of the garlic sauce. But he thinks of it as very spicy. So when I made garlic bread on Easter, Mark grinned at me and said, "Ooh, that's stiff stuff!" He paused. I had made it with butter and fresh garlic barely toasted into the bread. "Actually, it is," he said sheepishly. Then last night, we opened new toothpaste, and he came wandering out of the bathroom: "That new toothpaste is stiff stuff." And it is -- my mouth feels a bit scoured this morning -- but I just laugh. And feel really grateful that he has enough of a relationship with my grandpa to know how to jokingly quote him.

Speaking of stiff stuff, my back and neck are not so hot but could be worse than they are now, and in fact have recently been worse than they are now. I find that I'm getting better at the yoga I do. I don't just mean that I can extend better or fold more deeply into the poses (although that too). There are several points where the tapes tell me to relax various bits. Bridge pose, for example: "Relax the face and neck." I went through an initial stage where I'd have them all scrinched up until the tape said it, and then think, "Oh, right, relax, relax!" and try to smooth out the scrinches. Then I went through a stage where the tape would get out "re" of the "relax the face and neck," and I'd know where it was going and sheepishly do it. Now I don't scrinch in the first place. This is good. The scrinching reflex is not such a happy one, overall.

I feel like I'm adding more to the list than I'm taking off, today, but things like "teach David Scrabble-related game" and "eat veggies with Zed" and "stop off and say hi to Will" haven't made the list and so can't be taken off it when I'm done with them. They're on the agenda, just not on the list. And I keep thinking of ways to make the house less of a total pit before Liz and Tor get here, although I know they're not coming for a white-glove inspection. There are just little things -- like the calligraphy deal Kev gave us won't stick to the wall with Sticky-Tack any more, so there are little blue bits that need to be cleaned off that wall. If it doesn't get done, oh well, but it's certainly worth trying to remember.

Also, I've been picking at my closet, cleaning it out a bit at a time. Usually I think "I haven't worn this in N years" is a good rule for when to get rid of stuff, but I'm not sure about that now. With some stuff, I can't tell if it's that I don't wear it any more or if it's that I don't wear it here. The blue-grey corduroys, for example: I don't wear corduroys in California. Never have. Anywhere I would wear cords here, I would either wear jeans or a skirt as well, so I just skip them entirely, especially as they go with two lovely wool sweaters and not much else. But I can't tell whether I'll wear them at home, either, or whether I have determined myself not to be a corduroy person. So those stay. Those get moved. A skirt that never fit and is now out of fashion and likely to stay that way until I get pregnant or beyond? Out it goes. But then there are the middle I not wear that dress because it feels too young for me, or because it just never really gets that warm out here? Have those once-matching pieces faded at irrevocably different rates, or can I wear them with different things?

It would be much easier if I was either Timprov or Mark. Timprov has no extra clothes, essentially; the things he doesn't wear on a regular basis are either obviously winter clothes or are falling apart and only good for wear around the house while he's doing laundry. Mark, on the other hand, has pants that I don't recall ever seeing him wear. We're coming up on our fourth wedding anniversary, and we were engaged for two years before that and dated for a large fraction of one. We're talking nearly seven years that I have been looking closely at him wearing clothes, and he has clothes in the closet I have never seen on his body. Not to mention the T-shirts that are sad and pathetic that I have seen on his body. So if he was to clean out the closet, he'd have a much easier time of it than I do.

But I am determined -- and I repeat this often, so that people know how determined I am -- not to be the kind of spouse who sneaks in and steals things. Even though it would be really easy for me to do and I could have the closet thinned out and the stuff dumped off at the Goodwill before he could get home and say, "Hey, where's my Bang T-shirt?" (This T-shirt is from the Nobel Conference the year before he went to Gustavus. He bought it as a freshman in college. He has worn it consistently since. I know, I know, I have shorts that I got in junior high, and I still wear them. But they have worn muuuuuuch better than this T-shirt, and I only wear them 2-4 months out of the year.) One of the traumatic days of my childhood -- oh woe, I have put it on The List -- was when my mom took my dad's Wartburg wrestling shirt away from him. It was reversible. That was so cool. And she took it, and he whinèd and whinèd. (Never mind about the whinèds, that's a family thing. The List is the unwritten list I brandish at my parents of things that I will bill them for when I am middle-aged and need a shrink to straighten out all the horrible horrible stuff they did.) So here, I have been suggesting closet-cleanings as a matter of one's own conscience, knowing that there are needy people who could use the clothing one doesn't wear.

Whether taking it out into public like this is less fair than stealing the shirts, I leave as a reader survey.

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