Cogito, Ergo Sumana

Categories: sumana | Memoir

Reminiscences of my earlier life


: Penguicon, Orwell, ETAOINSHRDLU, and Being Important: When I was eight or nine years old, I think my parents went through a chunk of "how do we support this weird kid?" planning and work. Around this time I remember coming across a book my parents had acquired, something like How To Deal With Your Gifted Child, the kind of book that has 70 pages of large-print line art-illustrated stories to read to your kid and discuss with them, followed by 40 pages of smaller-print nonfiction prose meant just for the adults. I read the whole thing, of course. Pretty hard to prevent a kid who loves reading from reading the whole book and finding use and joy where she can.

Another one of the paperbacks that made its way into our house around this time was about word puzzles, trivia about English, neologisms, and so on -- it had something to do with Mensa, I think. This is how I learned that the twelve most common letters in the English language are, in order, ETAOINSHRDLU.

Also I remember being given a collection of modern British short fiction and essays, for use in a supplemental tutorial or something -- this is how I read my first George Orwell, his essay "Shooting an Elephant", and my first D.H. Lawrence, his short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner", and my first taste of how truly dark Roald Dahl could get, "The Great Automatic Grammatisator".

The advice on dealing with myself, as a gifted child, helped some -- I got it into my head that an aversion to doing things that I wasn't already good at would be harmful, for instance, even if I couldn't prevent acquiring a bit of it anyway. Everyone who comes out of childhood has scorch and stretch marks. I'm glad I got an early start on Dahl, Lawrence, and Orwell, warning me about technology's effect on art, obsession's effect on childhood, and imperalism's effect on the oppressor, respectively. And though ETAOINSHRDLU caused me to regard "Wheel of Fortune" the way many programmers feel about Sudoku -- that it presents problems to humans that properly ought to be solved by computers -- and thus be a bit of a funless jerk for a while about a TV show that provides pleasure to many people, it's has proven useful in countless games of Hangman, and in an inadvertent audience participation moment during a play I saw in Manchester in 2014.

There's a bit in Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis where a lecturer, solving a Hangman-style puzzle and mocking the audience for our wrong answers, says something about the likelihood of the next letter. I blurted out something like "E, then T, then A, because the twelve most common letters in the corpus of English-language writing, in order, are ETAOINSHRDLU". The speaker teased me occasionally for the rest of the act, and I later learned that several other audience members inferred that I must be a castmember, a plant.

More and more frequently I find that other people in my communities treat me as though I must be one of the cast, not one of the audience. As though I am important. One way of looking at impostor syndrome is that it looks at two people with the same characteristics and pasts and treats one as less important, always the audience and never the cast, solely because it's the self. The How to Deal book had stories about kids who got swelled heads, and stories about kids who never believed they were good enough. "Shooting an Elephant" said: once you're in the cast, you have to follow the script or there'll be hell to pay. And ETAOINSHRDLU has long represented to me the power of double-checking whether something really is random, and finding patterns, and sharing them with others, empowering us. Which can break a kind of fourth wall between watching and acting.

In a little over a week, I'm a guest of honor at Penguicon, and one of my sessions will be a reprise of my LibrePlanet 2017 keynote, "Lessons, Myths, and Lenses: What I Wish I'd Known in 1998" (description, video, in-progress transcript). I'll give the audience a menu of topics and they'll select the ones I talk about, and the order. It'll be massively different from the LibrePlanet version because the audience will choose different topics or a different order, barring deliberate collusion. One reason I'm doing my Guest Of Honor talk this way is because there is too much to say, and this way each story or insight has a fighting chance to get said. But another is that I have given written-in-advance keynote speeches enough times before that it's in danger of becoming a habit, a local maximum. And -- perhaps this does not speak well of me -- I think this particular audience participation method also provides a release valve for the pressure of being the Important one in the room. Instead of performing as a cast of one, I turn everyone into a plant.

To close out, my favorite chunk of Orwell, the ending of "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad":

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
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(2) : Changing How I Deal With Those Humiliating Teenage Memories: When I was in high school in Lodi, California, I worked on the school newspaper. It came out every two weeks; we gave it to the printer on Tuesday night or early Wednesday, I think, and we received and distributed it on Friday. So there was a deadline night every other Tuesday. For dinner, our tradition was to order calzones from a particular Italian place in Lodi; they didn't deliver, so one of the students who could drive would drive their car to go get the food.

One night I was the one who collected people's orders and made the call. But I lived in Stockton, some distance from Lodi. When finding the restaurant's phone number in the phone book, I absentmindedly chose the Stockton location and placed our order with the wrong restaurant. Catie* drove to the Lodi restaurant came back from her drive very unhappy and empty-handed; there wasn't time to go all the way to Stockton back and still hit the deadline for the printer, so we didn't get dinner that night.

Later that week, maybe the next day in the journalism room during lunchtime, I was about to go to the cafeteria, maybe to get my own lunch, but definitely also to get Catie's as well (she paid for her own lunch, it wasn't completely feudal). I think someone else said they could do it, but I still remember Catie snapping: "Hari can get me a burrito."

(Everyone at my high school newspaper called me by a shortened version of my last name, pronounced "Hairy". My journalism teacher called everyone by their last names, and had a devil of a time with mine, so on the third or fifth day of class my freshman year, I offered this solution. I have lost track of everyone I knew through that paper but I bet most of them would still think of me as Hari. I feel as though I ought to be embarrassed by this, or as though I should have been, but this is one of the ways social obliviousness protected me, for which I'm grateful.)

This happened twenty years ago and I still remember it. I especially remember it when I am taking care to order food from the restaurant location I intend, as I did last night.

The memory still has the power to wash chagrin over me. I can see why it does. I wasn't diligent about checking a detail, and so some of my team went hungry for a night,** and at least one of them was still irritated with me the next day. I feel a lot more embarrassed about that than I do about a nickname that didn't hurt anyone but me.

Several years ago, when I thought about this or similar past mistakes, I'd flush with feeling, humiliation coursing through me. I would subvocalize my self-loathing. Stupid.

Then I matured a bit, and my response changed. When I felt that rush of humiliation, I'd try to actively say, I love you, Sumana, and send myself some compassion. It helped me avoid going into a complete spiral of self-loathing, but it didn't stop the memories from coming back, unbidden, every so often.

Then I got enough distance to look back and see patterns. I grew to be different enough from teenage Sumana that I could see what she needed to learn -- like asking for help, resourcefulness, organization, resilience, dealing with failure. I'm better at those things than she was. And I can see ways that the people around me could have made better choices, too. I tried to make little moral lessons out of those still-piercing memories. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

But all of these approaches assume the pain of the memory is a problem to be solved. Today I'm going to try to lay that aside. What if I just accept and experience that pain? This is what I'm feeling right now. And then this too shall pass; I always do move on to thinking about something else, empirically. Maybe I will just keep on occasionally remembering this and feeling bad about it, maybe on the last day of my life I will remember this thing and feel bad, and that's okay.


* Not her real name.
** You know what, actually, we probably could have figured out a way to get some food that night anyway if we'd thought about it, call someone's parents or something.

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: Answering the Phone: In one of my earliest internships, I volunteered in the local district office of my state Senator (that is, the guy who represented my area in the upper chamber of California's state legislature). I reordered and rearranged informational brochures for our waiting area, I filed, I took phone messages, I think eventually I graduated to writing drafts of replies to constituents for the staffers to revise and send. I volunteered there for a summer, which means that my time there overlapped with the Senate's recess, so I remember a lot more constituent service calls than policy calls -- and the district offices probably got fewer of those calls than the Sacramento office did, anyway.

One day, someone called and said something like, "I'm calling about the Senator's ethics violation." I had never heard anything about this and said "I'm sorry, which ethics violation is that?" to which the caller said "You mean there's more than one?!" I sputtered and put them on hold and took a message or transferred them to a staffer, which I clearly should have done as soon as I heard the tone of their voice and their general topic of inquiry, but hey, inexperience.

Within a few days, there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper that mentioned this call and named me (I'm pretty sure misspelling my name) while excoriating the Senator and our office. My boss and colleagues sympathized and told me these things happen, and basically reassured me that this was not a black mark on my Permanent Record.

Decades later, I'm calling my local city councilmember, my Senators and my Representative who represent me in Congress, and related offices, spurred by emails from NGOs, aggregators like "We're His Problem Now" or Wall of Us, and local meetings. And sometimes I stumble over my words, not sure whether they want my name first or my message. But when the intern on the other end of the line says "I don't know what her position is on that; could you call back in 15 minutes? All the staffers who would know are in a meeting right now," I can smile and say "Yes, I can, and I know how it is, I've been on the other end of this call, it's fine." And at least I know I'm not utterly blindsidingly frustrating to deal with. I know, empirically, that I am not as bad as it gets.

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(2) : Political Memories: I've been reminiscing about past US elections and administrations.* I've been paying attention to US federal politics since the early nineties, which means I remember a lot of details that many younger politics enthusiasts don't. I decided to dredge some of them up:

I imagine some of my readers will be utterly uninterested in this litany, and some will be a little curious, and some will say "AGGGGH" and remember a bunch of things they thought they had forgot in a partially pleasing and partially disorienting experience. I will admit that this entry is mostly aimed at that last group.


* I misheard Leonard or something and we came up with the phrase "Munchin' Accomplished" which he immediately realized ought to be the name of a George W. Bush-administration-themed food cart. It would serve:

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: I Miss You, Frances: You died ten years ago today. I wish I could show you what your kids and their spouses have been up to in the last ten years. I like to believe you'd be pretty proud. Like, Leonard is making it easier for people to check out ebooks from their public libraries. I'm building a business. I wish I could tell you, I wish I could see you. I never got to ask you so many questions about Leonard's childhood, and about your own.

I miss you. I wish you weren't gone.

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: Temps: As Leonard has blogged, he and I just returned from a weeklong anniversary trip to Paris, courtesy of my mom. I'm still a little jetlagged and I've said "Excusez-moi" when brushing past a stranger here in New York. But I'm awake enough to blog. In English.

Leonard's and my hands, joined on our wedding dayWe got engaged on April 18, 2006, and then married a few days later, on a spring day in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park in New York City. That was ten years ago. It is the tritest thing in the world to be astonished at the passage of time, and yet, I remain astonished, because how can it possibly have been ten years ago that I went to that Macy's on 34th Street and bought those white trousers and camisole to wear, ten years since that Friday we came back home together and I felt like I could for the first time see decades away, as though atop a summit within my personal landscape and I could see the plains of middle age and old age stretching out beneath me?

Paris is a gratifying place to enjoy a vacation, gorgeous and delicious, and a humbling place for two Americans to celebrate Ten Whole Years of a marriage. The Celts and the Romans and Robespierre came and went before we ever paid a visit. The Arc de Triomphe has names carved into most of its sides, but then there are a couple of blank pillars, as though they're waiting. Versailles has a gallery of paintings celebrating French military victories that graciously includes a depiction of the Battle of Yorktown within the American Revolution.

I broke out my middle- and high-school French and found that French shopkeepers, bus drivers, and waiters and waitresses were friendly. They tried to speak with us in French and helped us get what we needed; one bus driver in particular went above and beyond in making sure I got on the right bus. Saying "Bonjour" upon walking in evidently sends the good-faith signal. Even the security personnel at the Paris (CDG) airport were friendlier than their counterparts at SFO or JFK.

I took a moment to visit a Hindu temple in an Indian neighborhood of Paris. The same smell of incense, the same chants, the same bellsong; a moment of home in a foreign land, even though I haven't been to a Hindu temple in the States since November. Familiarity is its own consolation, and a dangerous one. I can feel within me that impulse that would lash back against any change in the rituals, because even though of course there should be women priests and a less membrane-irritating alternative to incense smoke, I didn't grow up with them and the improvements would strike those synapses as jarring, off, ineffably wrong.

Paris's museum on the history of technology displayed not only a Jacquard loom but its predecessors; others had done programmable looms but their versions didn't auto-advance the program along with the weave, or didn't allow composability (replacing individual lines of code), and so on. Jacquard was Steve Jobs, integrating innovations. I need to remember that there are always predecessors. Leonard will probably blog more about our museum visits and meals and so on; I may not.

I now have almost three whole weeks at home before I leave to give my next conference talk. The summer's so full that I'm skipping Open Source Bridge for the first time since 2010, and even though CON.TXT and AndConf look amazing I will aim to attend them in future years.

I've been thinking about Ruth Coker Burks and role models, and Better Call Saul. I've been reading Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures by Betsy Leondar-Wright, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and translated by Ann Goldstein, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, and The Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler. That last one I read in the hotel room using the bedside lamp, next to my husband. Still such a strange word, "husband," or "wife" for that matter.

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(3) : Star Wars: The Force Awakens: I saw the original trilogy many years ago and just don't remember a lot of stuff. I was maybe sixteen; I missed my window for really loving it, in keeping with that old saying, "The golden age of science fiction is twelve." And then I saw Phantom Menace -- standing in line for it and all -- with my then boyfriend, when it came out, and then we had our first real argument, because I didn't like it and he did. Past Sumana, bewildered and frustrated in that dorm hallway, you are not wrong, basically the entire critical consensus agrees with you, and someday you will learn to trust your own aesthetic judgment.

In any case: even though I'd never seen Episodes 2 or 3, and I barely remembered the others, The Force Awakens was totally accessible and fun for me. I walked in as someone who thought Boba Fett was one of Jabba the Hutt's names, and I was fine.

I've heard that -- to trufans -- there's sort of a red herring happening in The Force Awakens about someone being set up to be the next Jedi. I did not see it, and I think one reason is that I don't know anything about what the harbingers of Jedi are, but also I think it's because I am such a nonfan that when I am watching a Star Wars movie I do not automatically think "ah there will have to be a new generation of Jedi, so who will it be?" It has not soaked in for me that Star Wars is fantasy and that the way we solve problems is by finding and training people sensitive to the Force. I have Star Trek in my DNA instead (like Leonard) so I assume that the way we solve geopolitical problems is by, like, being transgressively inclusive and making good arguments.

P.S. Does "TFA" mean Star Wars: The Force Awakens or two-factor authentication? In my upcoming fanfic on security in lightsaber summoning, both! Although I may need to figure out whether the Force is something you have, something you are, or something you know.

P.P.S. I will not be writing that fanfic, but you go ahead and feel free. Happy new year!

Edited to add at 11:45pm PT: OK, I wrote the fanfic. "Security Question" is about why a young Jedi apprentice can't shortcut the anti-theft system on the lightsabers by Force-summoning the two-factor auth token itself.

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(2) : Thoughtcrime Experiments, One Year Later: Today is the one-year anniversary of Thoughtcrime Experiments, the free scifi/fantasy anthology Leonard and I edited last year.

Thoughtcrime Experiments cover

Thoughtcrime Experiments got a bit of recognition in the form of award nominations. We made the British Fantasy longlist (voting closes 31 May). The Variety SF blog loved Ken Liu's "Single-Bit Error" and considered it one of the best short stories of the year. And Patrick Farley's "Gaia's Strange Seedlike Brood (Homage to Lynn Margulis)" has made the Ursa Major shortlist. We'll find out if he won next month.

Another form of recognition was the sharings, remixings and adaptations we hoped would happen when we released Thoughtcrime Experiments under a Creative Commons license.

LibrisLite, an ebook-reading application, includes our anthology as a free sample book. Marshall T. Vandergrift made a hand-crafted ePub edition, Arachne Jericho made ePub, Kindle/Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, and Sony Reader editions, and manybooks.net provides the book in many formats. Andrew Willett's short story "Daisy" received a lot of love this way, including an audio recording read by Ian McMillan and an upcoming project I can't mention yet. A fan also read it aloud at a storyreading party.

Mary Anne Mohanraj and Sumana Harihareswara at WisCon in 2009(To the right: E. J. Fischer's photo of me with Mary Anne Mohanraj, author of "Jump Space.")

We were also gratified to see people thinking about, reviewing, enjoying, and linking to individual stories and illustrations.

"Jump Space" by Mary Anne Mohanraj got substantial thoughtful attention, such as Rachel Chalmers's review:

"Even cooler, the story they sort of chose for me is "Jump Space", which I purely love. It's a head-on collision between the Heinlein juvenile adventure stories I adored as a kid - the Have Spacesuit Will Travel or Space Family Stones - and a thoroughly 21st century set of attitudes towards love, sex, dating one's professor, marriage, faithfulness, jealousy, prostitution, slavery and even raising children (my main preoccupation these days and one that Heinlein tended to rather idealize...)

Erica Naone's review of "Jump Space", in part:

I think the anthology is trying to explore a wider variety of human elements and viewpoints than are seen in the typical science fiction anthology...

Mary Anne Mohanraj's "Jump Space" has some of the most fully realized relationships that I've seen in science fiction.... the theme of love's simultaneous strength and fragility was emphasized against the backdrop of space. Love and family seem even more accidental and precarious when the universe is so large.

Mohanraj wrote a post about what she did wrong & right in "Jump Space". Hugo Schwyzer posted about "Jump Space" and academic ethics (specifically, on initiating professor-student romance), to which Mohanraj replied.

Rachel Chalmers's review continued:

I liked "Jump Space" so much that I was startled to find a story in Thoughtcrime that I liked even better. It is "Single Bit Error" by Ken Liu. Can't tell you much about it without spoiling a rather excellent surprise, but wow, it's just a stunner. Weaves together theoretical computer science and existential philosophy in a way I've always thought could be done, but never quite managed to do or see anyone else doing...

You should allow for my extreme bias in favor of my friends; despite this utter lack of objectivity I recommend this anthology to anyone who's interested in the best and bravest modern science fiction.

Bio Break by Brittany Hague(To the left: "Bio Break" by Brittany Hague.)

Kit Brown wrote: "I really liked Daisy by Andrew Willett and Single Bit Error by Ken Liu. I also loved Robot vs Ninjas by Marc Scheff and snagged it to add to my desktop wallpaper rotation."

Erin Ptah's illustration "Pirate vs. Alien" also got some attention: "More silliness may be found in this picture by Erin Ptah, wherein a buxom pirate battles a well-endowed alien who appears to be preparing to give himself a shave."

Lynda Williams says of "The Ambassador's Staff," a short story by Sherry D. Ramsey: "Well put together, goes down smooth, and captures my feelings about too little sleep and too much coffee, to boot. Allegorically speaking."

Sam Tomaino calls Thoughtcrime Experiments "an anthology filled with stories that I enjoyed thoroughly". And Jane Irwin of Vogelein liked it, especially "Daisy".

Erica Naone's thoughtful reviews of several Thoughtcrime Experiments stories are another useful resource; I can't quote them all here or they'd take up half the post!

One manybooks.net reviewer says:

When I saw the "mind-breakingly" description, I thought to myself, "No way, that is just too ambitious." Well after reading the first five or six stories, I must say I agree. This seems to be another example of really good authors publishing under the Creative Commons. Welcome to the future.

Other readers posted about the Creative Commons and DIY facets of our project interesting:

rollicking....The anthology wears its DIY cred on its sleeve and even has a how-to appendix and all the source code for the website is gank-able. It’s available as a free download or POD book. Keep Circulating the Tapes!...

They're publishing because they want to give back to the community. They have no illusions about reaping financial gains from these transactions, and that's okay. We all do things for love that we would never do for money....

The point of Thoughtcrime Experiments is its punk/hacker ethic. You don't have to wait for Gardner Dozois or any of the other 'masters of the genre' to make an anthology for you, you can go out there and do it yourself. If you can't find a magazine publishing SF you'd like to read, and feel they're all publishing the same tired stuff, Much like their punk predecessors at 'Sideburns' they have an appendix on "How we did this". It's the three-chord diagram for a revolution in SF.

Now, it probably won't catch on. Just because punk happened, doesn't mean one can start a revolution every time one is needed. But imagine if it did. Imagine if the kids started getting together, and producing their own SF magazines. Imagine if SF became, for some small portion of the population, the new rock-and-roll, or at least the new indie-rock....

But it's not just the anthology that's interesting. Leonard used this entire project to better understand the editing process. His conclusions are quite interesting for writers. Basically, that we don't suck as bad as we think we do just because we get so many damn rejections...

Times Square by David Kelmer(To the right: "Times Square" by David Kelmer.)

Another author talked about our anthology while considering commodification, scarcity, and publishing. And Freedom to Tinker noted,

Still, part of the new theory of open-source peer-production asks questions like, "What motivates people to produce technical or artistic works? What mechanisms do they use to organize this work? What is the quality of the work produced, and how does it contribute to society? What are the legal frameworks that will encourage such work?" This anthology and its appendix provide an interesting datapoint for the theorists. (See Leonard's response.)

Jed's repost of our call for submissions, and his announcement once we were out, also commented on the ripples our project might send out: "So I'm hoping, as Leonard and Sumana are hoping, that in addition to providing a good read, this anthology will inspire others to embark on new publishing ventures."

If you want our thinky thoughts about the whole venture, you might be interested in Sharon Panelo's interview with me, my length anthology retrospective and thoughts on scifi publishing, more such, and Leonard's many interesting posts on the stories, the process, and what we learned about the field. And I hope we get that Hour of the Wolf radio show interview up for download/reading sometime soon.

To finish up the link roundup: Grasping in the Wind, BoingBoing, Tor.com, John Scalzi, Baby Got Books, and Locus also notified their readers of our existence, for which we are grateful.

The book's still up. Read or download it for free, or buy a paperback for USD5.09 plus shipping. I'm arranging to have about seventy copies for sale at cost at WisCon.

If I missed your review, please post a link in the comments!

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