# (2) 02 Oct 2010, 10:22PM GMT+9: Open-Face:
Today Mom and I take a bus down to the District of Columbia. I'll be there for a little over a week. I am hoping Mom naps on the bus so I can read Regeneration and listen to music that is not Hindu devotional chants. English-language music with profanity in it!
Last week I briefly tried to imagine what I would do, ideally, once my mom was squared away. I think the scenario had me watching some TV show I miss -- InfoMania or Psych -- while reading my Pynchon while eating, like, Japanese or Ethiopian food while drinking alcohol while having sex while listening to 90s alt-rock.
I am embarrassed to admit how many episodes of Full House I watched as a young'un (but Gus saw a lot of them, too! I am vindicated via social proof, or something), but a few lessons from it stick. Like the time young Michelle? tried to make sandwiches with all the fillings she liked at once (say, peanut butter and ham) and they were disgusting, and uncle Stamos, er, Jesse? (I refuse to look this up on principle) had to explain to her that she should stop with the combinations. I think of this moment whenever I go all infernokrusher/lasersharking with my daydreams.
I am now reminded of many tangents: my brief membership in the Bob Saget fan club; "technically, the last minute would have been 8:59am Monday morning"; Ameri-Toast, formerly Insta-Toast, slices of bread you buy with a disposable red-white-and-blue instant toaster oven attached; "Scratch"; what I learned about marriage from Mad About You; and my conversation with Peter Watts (who looks like Bill Nye the Science Guy and acts like Aaditya Rangan) at WorldCon. Sticky tendrils all, but I should go pack.
(Argh, timestamp is all weird, shouldn't take the time to fix. It's 9:23am.)
# 07 Oct 2010, 10:52PM: When Did My Mom's Hair Turn More White Than Black?:
Mom (in Kannada): Will you grate the rest of these beetroots for me? My arm hurts.
Me: Sure! [starts in on the beets] These are staining my hands red, huh. Hey! This is Columbo and you're framing me!
By the way, you can eat raw beet (or "beetroot" as the Commonwealth countries call it), but it's not nearly as tasty as roasted. I'm guessing the beet juice at juice bars is from raw beets, and that it's the added celery, spinach, carrot, &c. that makes it so yummy.
I'm in Washington, DC, returning next week. I'm most of the way through Charles Stross's The Family Trade, the first in his Merchant Princes series. Eh. I enjoyed his postmortem but the book feels a bit mechanical, the prose and psychological detail nothing to write home about after reading Pat Barker. Still a page-turner, though.
Tonight I continued printing and addressing Nandini's wedding invitations for Mom's friends. Oh, time to read more Divakaruni to Mom! More later.
# 09 Oct 2010, 08:54AM: Private Lives:
Martin and I saw our pal John Stange in Private Lives last night in Silver Spring, Maryland. I don't think I've ever seen any Noel Coward before. Funny and hot; recommended. Closes tomorrow so go see it if you plausibly/feasibly (flausibly?) can.
We hung out afterwards at what John described as a dive, but the lights were too bright and there were children at the next table. Are my "dive" criteria off? Turns out that all three of us have got to management positions in the workplace. Huh.
# (1) 12 Oct 2010, 08:06AM: Draw A Tasteful Curtain:
The other day my mother got on a plane to go to India. Last night, in my apartment with my husband and no one else, I fulfilled part of my dream by drinking wine while eating a salad while we watched Psych.
I leave again, of course, in less than two weeks' time. Since July, I haven't spent more than two weeks at a time in my own apartment. This is one reason why one of our living room windows currently has a torn sheet as a curtain placeholder. My mother and sister decided to give us the gift of drapes -- the gift that keeps on draping -- so on Sunday a few of us went to a big-box store (ugh, not my choice, but I pick my battles).
[Why do I get so grumpy about buying home-ish things like curtains and a nightstand and extra bedsheets? I have no expertise in the process or products (I wasn't involved in these decisions or processes growing up), so the stores and packages seem full of lies and superficial distinctions and chances to get it wrong. One has to choose for both function and form, and I am uncomfortable trying to be aesthetic. And I have a general allergy to homemaking and I'm not quite sure where it comes from (lack of expertise/psychological infrastructure, fear of doing it wrong, laziness, leftover knee-jerk function-over-form reflex, suspicion of companies and cultural forces trying to get me to buy things), just that I want to get rid of it.]
The draperie was a general gift, I think part of our delayed wedding-present collection. (Our wedding didn't provide affordances for Mom's gift-giving tendencies.) Because of my sister's upcoming wedding, Mom wants to give Leonard and me an additional, special gift. It is hard for her to buy us gifts, because we don't want/need gifts of clothes, money, metalwork, or religious paraphernalia. (At some point I stopped trying to tell Mom that really, she doesn't need to get me anything from India when she goes back and forth, so we have a sort of agreement that she'll give me sandalwood soap, Parle-G sugar cookies, and Amar Chitra Katha comic books.)
Mom was sitting in our living room, asking once more what Leonard and I wanted, since she wanted to give us something. Mom's inherent nature is altruistic; maybe the problem is that she passed it on to me, and so we clash because neither wants to take from the other. I looked around my living room and realized we could use some bookends. So Mom will get an artisan to hand-carve a few sets of bookends based on our ideas. If I just end this post here, does that still count as graceful bookending?
# 14 Oct 2010, 01:53AM AEST: The Hyperlinks I Forged In Life:
Disregard the timestamp on this entry, which is leftover from a draft I began on the other side of the world, when the Elizabeth Moon controversy broke. Everything feels unfinished, uncertain, temporary. I finally upgraded my laptop to Lucid Lynx -- yes, half a year after its release. Leonard and I finished watching the first season of the new Reggie Perrin and like it, but not as much as the brilliant original Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Gordon Korman's new young adult novel Pop is the most moving thing he's ever written. I talked with my mother on the phone and she sounds happy in Mysore. I feel like I'm on a road trip on a conveyor belt.
Roleplay scenarios to train concealed-carry weapons permitseekers.
Everything Scott writes, of course, but especially him and his readers discussing what's exhausting about running a web publishing organization.
Kate Beaton's Maurice "the Rocket" Richard for Kids made me cry with happiness.
A few weeks ago, speculative fiction author Elizabeth Moon wrote an essay arguing, among other things, that groups of minorities in the United States are responsible for assimilating and seeming non-threatening (a simplification, of course, since if she had written it that baldly maybe she would have understood how absurd her argument was). She then shut down the comment thread on her post and hid all the comments from public view, thus effectively deleting the conversation by which many readers were trying to discuss how and why she was wrong. Yasaman's response on civilization, the meaning of American citizenship, and pride spoke to me, and I thank coffeeandink and Jed for collecting several other of the many thoughtful responses from around the Net. My old Berkeley friend Shweta Narayan, in response, detailed her experiences of assimilation; I had a much, much easier time of it growing up, so hearing her experience is sobering and edifying. And, as usual, Liz Henry tries to build on our dismay to get us to contribute to relevant, productive causes.
Elizabeth Moon is currently one of two Guests of Honor at next year's WisCon feminist sci-fi convention, which has of late been a locus of anti-racist activity. Thus: additional controversy, which I am not attempting to cover systematically in this idiosyncratic selection of links. What can the organizers and participants do to mitigate the implications? Many ask: should she remain a GoH? And it's not like she's the first GoH in WisCon history to have held some abhorrent views, but it's not just about her words, but her actions: the attempted erasure of opposing voices.
I am, right now, deliberately making no plans regarding travel in 2011 so that I can stay free to make plans to take care of my mother. I might go to WisCon, and to other gatherings that honor people who have said or done some things I find breathtakingly wrong. Been there before, will be there again. I was at the GUADEC where Richard Stallman did the sexist emacs virgins comedy act, for instance. But I have my own reasons and needs and tolerances and trade-offs, and will aim not to proselytize others who differ.
On a completely different note, a tearjerking story about family and machines.
# 13 Oct 2010, 11:32AM: Mirabai, Plover, and Common Spaces:
I am so proud of my friend Mirabai Knight for many reasons, not least that she founded and leads the Plover open source stenography project. With a USD45 gamer's keyboard and her free software, you can try out the typing method that could get you double or triple your typing speed! You may not realize what a communications bottleneck your typing speed is till you've seen a stenographer in action.
On the occasion of its 2.0 release this month, Geek Feminism interviewed her. Excerpt:
When I was in steno school, I noticed something interesting. Even though the school had an overall 85% dropout rate -- meaning that only 15% of matriculated students passed the three 225 WPM speed tests needed to graduate -- nearly everyone got up to 100 WPM within the first semester or so, and it was in that 100 to 200 WPM window that people started getting frustrated and quitting. Steno is so ridiculously more efficient than typing every word out letter by letter that it's possible to exceed the average qwerty speed in a matter of months, once you've got the phonetic system in your muscle memory. Then, as people start to use steno for all their daily computing tasks, the speed comes gradually and inexorably. It might take years of consistent use to get up to court reporting speeds, or some people might permanently plateau around 160 or 180 WPM, but even so it's a huge improvement over qwerty, and there are significant ergonomic benefits as well.
Mirabai is amazing and I'm privileged to know her; for a taste, check out her recent essay How I Got Here.
Mirabai also introduced me to Common Spaces, a laid-back Brooklyn co-op coworking space. Everyone gets 24-7 access, flex space is only USD200 per month, you get free coffee and laser printer use, and there's a kitchen and a conference room and a phone booth and often free cake from the cakery on the same floor. It's near a bunch of subway lines. If you live in NYC and work out of your home, consider trying Common Spaces for a month and see whether adding this physical infrastructure helps you work, think, and feel better.
# (3) 14 Oct 2010, 07:17AM: I Don't Actually Feel As Alienated And Adrift As This Ends Up Sounding:
I enjoyed many moments and experiences in my long autumn stretch with my Mom, like when Julia and Moss came over and talked about scary Boston cabdrivers, which led Mom to tell a tale about a ridiculous Tehran taxi experience. Or when I got to deploy Mom's Sanskrit expertise to help out someone on MetaFilter. Or finally getting to show her the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, where Leonard and I got married.
And then there's the accumulation of small lessons and words and times of day, the tint and saturation that builds irregularly, organically. I gardened our lives. Gardening is strange because it feels so passive and therefore wrong; I'm partnering with time but time doesn't communicate clearly and I have to read its mind and sit on my hands a lot.
Now I have more time-freedom, which of course means I'm down and negative thoughts intrude. Also thoughts that aren't necessarily negative but have a feeling of disintegration to them, the intellectual frameworks I've habitually used as scaffolding and trellises decaying and slipping into the sea.
I tried to be attentive to my mom while hosting her, though not intrusive, and I've learned a bit about how to be a good host/daughter/caretaker for her. For example: sometimes, instead of asking her what she wants, it's better to tell her some options to get her mind oriented. (Multiple-choice questions can be easier than essay questions; isn't this why we give clients portfolios and mood boards and prototypes, so they don't have to start ab nihilo?) I appreciate better how she and my dad complemented each other when running the family and projects. They thought differently. I take after my dad.
And she so utterly does not want to be a burden, ever, at all. She'd rather put up with a little pain or trouble than make a fuss and inconvenience one of her daughters. Even though, right now, that iota of pain might end up ruining her day. So you can see another reason why I wanted to be extra-attentive. I needed to watch for the expression on her face, in case it told me that Mom's energy reserves were running down and I should figure out why, and fix it.
It was scary, the first day she was at my place. I basically thought, "WHAT THE HELL DO I DO NOW." But I've learned, through observation and trial and error (and advice!), and the slow drip of time. I've started to construct a list of things that she likes -- like a half-cup of tea with Equal and a splash of milk, and flowers and babies and musicals with good dancing -- to deploy appropriately when I caretake her next. Expertise reduces the effort and conscious thought it takes to get to a desired result, and makes room for fillips and grace notes.
I was talking with James about how I think a similar process has worked in my history of romantic relationships. I observe my partner's behavior, and listen to things he says, and talk to his friends to learn his preferences and plans. Then I devise a scheme or buy something or create something to improve his life, or pleasantly surprise him (say, by showing up at his place), or add beauty to his living space. This is a kind of thoughtfulness. And it dovetails with the bias that I have towards expensive, hard-to-fake signals. It is hard for someone to fake writing a sonnet about their partner, or homecooking a meal, or choosing a seemingly nondescript 99-cent-store photo album whose cover references an inside joke.
After all, when I look at a well-made bridge or website or novel, a particularly appealing quality is quiet, unshowy attention to detail. There's craftsmanship and effort. And part of what speaks to me there is thinking of the human hours that went into making that object precisely right.
(I'm reminded of a guy who came to offer his condolences after my dad's death, and told me something about my dad's scholarship. Dad had been tapped to update a Sanskrit reference text, and the publisher told Dad he only had to check sources for the entries he was adding or updating, the diff from the previous edition. Dad didn't think this was good enough, and meticulously checked or found original sources for every entry in the book. This fairly thankless task will help numberless future scholars. Most won't know. We joke about "citation needed" but my dad stepped up and did something about it. You can tell how proud I am, right?)
But an interaction between humans, or the institution that grows from and contains those interactions, is not a table or a poem or a piece of software or hardware. People and my relationships with them are not objects.
(I need to quote Julia again here: "I don't understand why we, as a society, always want to put intensely complex arrays of emotionally significant things into tight boxes. The world does not work that way.")
I like observing systems and figuring them out, but people only like being treated that way sometimes; sometimes it squicks them. For example, why do I like it when a new friend asks me about a connection he made by reading my old blog archive, but find it uncomfortable when someone (even Leonard) notices how I swish beverages in my mouth when I drink? Until this week, I was bizarrely unaware of how creepy I seem when a stranger can tell that I'm trying very hard to tell what book they're reading in public. (Nandini and Leonard got through to me; thanks, though it hurt.) I know I'm off from consensus reality but I don't know how off and everything is made of fog, all that is solid melts into air, the lenses I prized are revealed as mirrors.
(I am rambling! Big surprise.)
Should I prize someone else's attention to me as much as I do? How fair is it for me to hope/expect that a partner will moonlight as Magnum, P.I.? Life is not a scavenger hunt. I hate acting coy and find it distasteful to consider offering anyone a prize for logging hundreds of hours listening to me yammer, or megabytes of text read, or solving me-as-puzzle. There is something more here that I am trying to tease out, about enthusiasm and sincerity ("He loved Big Brother."), coveted because they are hard to fake and their absence portends so ill.
I guess what I am moseying around is that attentiveness can be a kind of love, but that it could be hard to distinguish from obsessive, neurotic observation. What is the infovore really hungry for? I'm not monomaniacally seeking to lossily reduce my mother to a mental model, but I have felt the impulse to control her -- I find myself wanting to burn all her bugs and fixes into my memory, to learn enough that I can fix all her problems so she can be permanently happy -- and helplessness when she seems like a black box not suitable to modeling.
And this is the scariest thing -- not just not understanding, but the impossibility of understanding, the utterly alien. My normal approach is useless here. The abyss of incomprehensibility. Not just "all models are wrong, some are useful," but every model and even the conceptual approach of modeling being wrong, useless. There are basic techniques, like storymaking, patternmatching, and modelling. What if none of them work?
The final frontier is in this room with the stranger.
# (1) 18 Oct 2010, 11:41AM: Cooking: Succotash:
On Saturday, I made a succotash inspired by the succotash I liked at Whitmans. People liked it. Also, this is the first time in years that I've cooked a savory dish from scratch. It's been far too easy to let Leonard, restaurants, and the frozen/refrigerated readymade foods industry take over. Leonard helped me by cutting and roasting the acorn squash, but the rest I did myself, including carbonizing the broiled carrots on my first try and setting off the smoke alarm. (Less Maillard reaction and more a "Merde!" reaction.)
So: one oven-roasted acorn squash (blargh, peeling that thing afterwards was tedious), three ears boiled fresh corn, two drained cans of cut green beans, one chopped carrot broiled in oil, salt, and pepper, one or two raw grated carrots, and more salt to taste. Combine in a bowl. Bits of parsley and avocado to garnish. Serve warm if possible; makes four-ish meals? Go ask a better cook (such as the Internet) how long to apply heat to all the individual components, or just do it by feel.
# 18 Oct 2010, 11:56AM: Doula-y Noted:
Current Mahabharata jokes include "I'll be your Veda Vyasa if you'll be my Ganesha" and doing the Yaksha Prashna ("What's faster than the wind?" "Thought." "What's the most amazing thing?" "That every day we see people around us fall ill and die, yet each thinks, 'I will live forever.'") as Abbott-and-Costello. "What's emptier than the air?" "My wallet!" Or just Your Mom jokes. And the Pandavas would still make a good boy band.
Yesterday I also amused new acquaintances when I defensively replied, "I know what a doula is!" This after I'd messed up my attempted doula/medulla oblongata pun.
For newish friends: this is the sort of blog entry I used to write five years ago, when I was working at Salon and reading a lot and writing my weekly MC Masala column and reviewing books for Bookslut. As I recall: less angst and more wordplay.
# (7) 19 Oct 2010, 02:20AM: Outlier:
I am not on Facebook. If you see a Sumana Harihareswara there, it's not me. Continuing to abstain from Facebook makes me something like a digital vegan. I wonder how many parties, job opportunities, mildly interesting discussions, and other connections I've missed by abstaining. Probably still worth the tradeoff.
Even though it takes positive effort to eat meat or to join Facebook, when most people around me make that effort, some believe that the fact that I passively and inertially continue as I was requires explaining. (See also: teetotalers.) So, a few of the reasons I'm not on Facebook:
- Mark Zuckerberg has a plan for your life! (Phrasing borrowed from Christianity.) I don't care for it.
- It's clutter I don't need.
- I don't like walled gardens -- users can't easily save a backup of the data they put into Facebook, for example.
- I don't like monocultures, in any ecology.
- The firm deliberately, over and over, changes users' privacy settings to make it harder for people to control who knows what about them. (See also: the importance of the private, as separate from secret.)
- "What makes you think you can control what happens to your personal data?"
- Stuff that I put on my blog or on identi.ca/Twitter, anyone can read. Most of Facebook requires you log in to access it, and I don't want to limit my readership and close the conversation that way.
- I figure if it's a utility then it should be nationalized. I can wait.
# (2) 24 Oct 2010, 02:20PM: Away:
I am packing, clothes and snacks and electronic gewgaws. I leave tonight for about eight weeks in India, where I'll keep an eye on my mom. This is not easy for me; I do not mind sitting on airplanes for long periods, but I love my husband and will miss him, and I will feel alien and sad and alone a lot. But thinking about it doesn't help me get up and pack and get on the plane and comfort my mom, so I am going to try being unthinking.
Chris Moriarty's Books column in the September/October 2010 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has a review of C.J. Cherryh's Regenesis. He says on page 57: "And Cherryh lovingly chronicles the bleed-through, creating a rich parable of the little deaths of the soul that we ignore in our own lives because... well... there are times when you just can't look life straight in the eye and still do what you have to do to get through it."
And in the same issue, in Alexandra Duncan's great "The Door in the Earth," a young man visiting his mother thinks of his girlfriend: "I needed to hear her voice, have her remind me that every day here was another I wouldn't have to do over again. Every day was bringing me back to the bearableness of routine."
Even writing this post, though I want to do it to explain to you how I'm feeling, isn't doing me any good. I just need to hit Post, grit my teeth, and go. So. See you on the net, now and then.
# 27 Oct 2010, 12:32AM: Morning Update:
Am in Mysore. Went to the folklore museum again. May have won last night's battle against jet lag; time and tea will tell. Time to bucket bathe!
# 29 Oct 2010, 01:25PM: When Fluff Fails:
From last night, not posted till now:
Tonight, instead of going to sleep at a reasonable hour, I quickly read Neal Shusterman's young adults' dramedy novel The Schwa Was Here. Washington, D.C. bookstore dude, why did you recommend Shusterman to me when I was disappointed you didn't have any more Gordon Korman? Shusterman is okay, with some good lines and observations in Schwa and Unwind (horror YA sf), but the prose isn't quite as well-crafted, and I think Shusterman's not as witty. (Not to mention that the central premise of Unwind is unbelievable and Shusterman never quite earns the reader's suspension of disbelief.)
And now I'm up late thinking about invisibility, mortality, legacy, and other cheering topics. What else did I bring to read? Earth: The Book is also somewhat depressing, but it's mightily funny and cutting and erudite as it depresses. Finished that yesterday. My luggage also contains a Star Trek branded novel about Kahless. I guess I'll go to sleep.
Cogito, Ergo Sumana by Sumana Harihareswara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.