That’s My Girl

My only niece is in New Zealand right now as part of an educational exchange program, and my mother just forwarded her first email. All the little things about it scream that she’s family. There are the 3-1/2 memory cards she’s already filled with pictures (“and one of those is a 2 gig”). There’s the mention–without explanation–that her favorite part of her stop in Fiji appears to have been falling in the mud.

But it’s the email itself that just about has me tearing up. Sure, the only capital letters are the ones in her name and the two words in all caps. Sure, the whole thing is punctuated with exclamation points, and there’s not an apostrophe to be seen. But the girl is articulate! This fifteen-year-old who usually communicates in shrugs gives us the highlights of her trip to date, lists the cultural differences she’s noticed so far, and tells us how homesickness is competing with having the time of her life, all in fewer words than I’m using in this post.

I always knew she was a great kid (even when she was kind of bratty). I just never knew she could write. [sniff] I’m so proud. :)

Steven Moffat

…is a god among writers.

“Nine and a Half Minutes” is the single most brilliant script ever. It’s from Coupling. No, the good one, the British one (same scripts, better acting and directing). It is the exact same sequence of events involving six people seen from three different viewpoints. It’s the only time I’ve seen the same joke mean two different things, with both being hysterically funny. And while it adds a bit to know the characters, it’s still brilliant without that knowledge.

Go watch it. Go watch the whole series. You can finish reading this when you’re done.

Moffat also wrote the best Doctor Who episodes ever. All six of them. “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances, ” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink, ” “Silence in the Library,” and “Forest of the Dead.” They will creep you out. They will break your heart. They will end in a place you didn’t expect but that is exactly where they must end. And you will never forget the characters they introduce.

Next season, Moffat takes over the whole show. I already knew that, of course. Cheers went up at WisCon when it was announced that it was now official. But having just seen the last two episodes he wrote makes it more immediate, so now I’m twitching for it to happen now, now, NOW. It won’t, though. Not for another two years.

I’m so going to wear out my DVDs before that gets here.

Janie’s Blogoversary

My friend JanieBelle is celebrating the completion of her second year of kick-butt blogging by posting the fourth and final chapter of “The Lilith Obsession.” As you can probably tell from the title, this is not a tale for the kiddies. It’s not even for all the adults. But if you want a good read, start here, and wish her a happy blogoversary if you’re not completely speechless when you get to the end.

Doin It Rite

The New York Times has an article today about a government-sponsored conference that is exploring whether there could be a link between mitochondrial disorder, vaccines and autism. It was prompted by the Hannah Poling case. The conference is indeed news, but it’s the kind of article that generally makes me wince even as I know I have to read it.

It’s hard to find an article on vaccines today that doesn’t think it has to “teach the controversy” on the subject of autism. Generally, local health officials and pediatricians are quoted on the importance and timing of vaccinations. Who is quoted depends on where the article is written. Then their statements are offset with scare tactics by one of the same half dozen doctors, attorneys, leaders of parents’ groups, and former Playboy bunnies who are quoted in all of these articles.

Except this article.

Parents and a small group of doctors have offered a variety of scientific explanations in recent years to try to explain why they think vaccines may cause or contribute to autism. Among the first was that the measles vaccine caused a low-level measles infection that affected children’s brains. The science underlying that theory has since been discredited.

The next theory was that a mercury-containing vaccine preservative, thimerosal, poisoned their brains, causing autism. Multiple studies have failed to find any relationship between thimerosal exposure and autism, and nearly seven years after the preservative was removed from childhood vaccines, autism rates seem unaffected.

There’s more, particularly on the new theory that mitochondrial disorder has something to do with any perceived link. A relative of Hannah Poling is quoted as looking for answers, a second case is listed as possibly being related, but reason and science and consensus always get the last word.

This is how to write about “controversial” science.

Never That Simple

I think it is very hard to be absolutely honest with oneself, especially if words come easily. Before I write, I have to ask myself what I think, and if the answer comes too quickly, I have to stop and ask again — Now, what do I really think.

–Reeve Lindbergh in Forward From Here

Every once in a while, along comes a quote that makes me take a step back. Reading this was one of those “Hey, I’m not the only one” moments.

It’s so easy to go arguing along, laying out the evidence, and find that I’ve followed a tidy path to a conclusion I don’t believe. It’s even tempting sometimes to leave that perfect little argument in place, to let it stand as a monument to its own rhetoric.

But no, I know better. I have to backtrack to figure out what I’ve misstated, and I always find it in the same place–the tidiness. It’s always the same mistake: I’ve allowed myself to be seduced by the elegant simplicity of my own thesis as I build it.

It’s funny, because simple is the one thing no one who knows me will buy. It’s the argument I never get away with. I’m the queen of qualification. I get suspicious when I don’t see contradictions. The one common theme of all of my stories, even the tiny 500-word ones, is “It’s not that simple.” So back I go, to rip my original thesis apart and expose its flaws on the way to saying whatever it is that I really do think.

I sometimes have to do the same with people, particularly people I don’t know well. I’m so used to telling stories about the fictional people in my head that I can slot new people into their own little narratives if I’m not careful. Small behaviors mark larger character traits in fiction, why not in real people?

Because real people are masses of contradictions that would never be tolerated in even the most “literate” of fiction. And because if I tell myself simple stories about the real people in my life, I’m missing out on all the wonderful oddities that appealled to me in these people in the first place. Back I go again, to separate memories of what was actually said and done from the structure I’ve built up to store them in, to reject the story and embrace the messy reality.

It always hurts a little to let the story go, even though I’m much happier when I’m done. In the end, real people are so much more satisfying than imaginary ones.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it again. It’s just so simple to do.

Lukewarm Coffee

Around here, we’re big fans of Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series. One of the things we wanted to do last time we were in Edinburgh was have our picture taken at their offices on Calton Hill. We didn’t make it, for reasons largely having to do with hurricanes, but that’s another story.

Point being, not long after we were there, the Hot Coffee “scandal” broke.

You remember Hot Coffee? This was where some content not accessible from GTA: San Andreas in-game was still present on the discs that shipped. If third-party software was used on a PC, the dedicated player could see some low-polygon clothes-on nookie. Very shocking, particularly in a game where your city is being torn apart by gang wars and corrupt police.

In 2007, Take-Two Interactive, the distributor, announced that they would settle a pending lawsuit on the matter by providing up to $35 to anyone who “(a) bought a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas before July 20, 2005; (b) were offended and upset by the ability of consumers to modify and alter the game’s content using the third-party Hot Coffee modification; (c ) would not have bought the game had they known that consumers could modify and alter the game’s content using the third-party Hot Coffee modification; and (d) would have returned the game, upon learning the game could be modified and altered, if they thought this possible.”

Nearly a year later, the results are in. There were 2,676 people who were willing to tell the world (for money) that they were shocked. That amounts to a settlement for Take-Two of about $300,000.

Nor is that all the good news:

Theodore Frank, director of the Legal Center for the Public Interest at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the lack of claimants proves that the case was meritless from the beginning. He submits that this lack of response proves that the plaintiffs claims were overblown, and as a consequence the suit may be deemed meritless and the lawyers who tried the case will not be able to collect their $1.3 million in legal fees they are demanding from Take-Two.

The lead lawyer who may not be getting paid “doesn’t understand why so many people don’t care.” Dude. Maybe because the 21.5 million (mostly) adults who bought the M-rated game are more capable than you are of acting like grown ups–at least about a game.

Now how do we get them to do the same about everything else?

The Blizzard

I took a post off here a while back saying things about an ex-boyfriend that were true but neither widely known nor entertaining. This story, containing three ex-boyfriends, is something none of us are going to forget. You can tell me whether it’s entertaining.

So there we were, coming back from Duluth in the middle of a November blizzard, me, the guy I’d been dating about two weeks (S) and my ex-roommate (V). We’d been to see a play on campus. Either V or S must have known someone in the production, but I was there to get out of town. The road trip up had settled my nerves nicely.

It started snowing as we came out of the theater, and once we were a few miles down the road, we were facing a whiteout. Being between exits, we had no good place to pull over where we wouldn’t be a target for any cars silly enough to be on the road behind us. Along we crept as slowly as V’s car would go.

We were pretty tense by the time we passed the white Saab barely visible on the side of the road, but the weather had nothing to do with why I flinched. Anyone who knew me when knows that D drove Saabs. D, of course, was the most recent ex-boyfriend, the one who’d been making out with V back at our apartment while I was in the hospital after my appendectomy, the one who shortly thereafter had refused to talk to me after deciding to break up, the one who had recently told me about how he was considering killing himself if we didn’t get back together now that he’d slept with V. In short, D was the reason I needed some time where I couldn’t be found.

But there, in the middle of this nightmare blizzard, was a white Saab with no one in the driver’s seat. I didn’t say anything to V or S. They hadn’t seen the car. It couldn’t be D. Right? We were three hours from home. D couldn’t have known where I was going, and the car was pointed the wrong direction to be following us. We kept inching along.

Sometime before Hinkley, we were just driving through snow. No more blizzard. But by that time we were all shaky and up later than we’d intended to be. It was time to take advantage of Tobey’s all-night breakfast.

We were laughing over cinnamon rolls and bad coffee, just settling down again, when a head popped around the corner and back. “C, get back here!” The restaurant wasn’t crowded at whatever a.m., but I’d have yelled even if it had been.

The face reappeared. C held up one finger and disappeared again. Ex-boyfriend number two, and I was still only halfway home. I think I refrained from swearing while I waited.

C was a high school boyfriend, the one I lost to Catholic guilt. It wasn’t that he felt guilty about anything we were doing. It was more that B decided it was time for him to stop seeing me and date only her, and she, being Catholic, was much better at using guilt than I was.

I’d salvaged some of my pride the summer after we graduated with a major make-out session, punctuated by “How could I have been so stupid” remarks from him. Of course, I was dating D at the time. What can I say? I was young and dumb. And in the last couple of years, D and C had become best buddies. D knew all about C, or thought he did, which hadn’t given me much moral high ground in the recent dust-up over V.

Oh, and just to make the situation more complicated, V had also recently been after both S and C. I don’t know whether she was boy crazy or just wanted what I’d had. I wasn’t much impressed with V’s big unobtainable crush, so it wasn’t that we shared the same taste in guys.

Forget triangles. Mapping this situation required three dimensions.

Finally C came back. Yep, that had been D’s impossible Saab. Yep, he’d been following me to Duluth when he’d had an accident in the blizzard. He’d bounced off a guard rail, spun across the median, and ended up on the opposite side of the oncoming lanes with a car that shouldn’t move. C was on his way to pick him up.

Only C’s car had just died on the freeway. C was at Tobey’s to call someone to come get them both. He’d found us before he found the pay phone. But hey, since we were already here….

Yeah, we went. We persuaded C to have some food first, since he’d just had a nice snowy walk, but we went, back up into the heavier snow to the rest stop where D was waiting.

I chickened out on the way home. D was in the front seat with V, but I curled up in the back and pretended to sleep, head on C’s shoulder. Somehow it seemed like the safest choice, better than snuggling up to S. I should have gone the other way, though.

I had a third ex-boyfriend by the next afternoon.

Happy Birthday

You ever meet someone who just, flat out, makes you think harder than you’re used to? Someone who challenges your assumptions even when agreeing with you? Someone who bustles along at their own pace while expecting you to keep up, because you can?

That happened to me a few months ago. Well, not the meeting part, because I’ve never technically met him. But hey, out here in the blogosphere, what are technicalities? Still, perhaps I should say I was introduced to him.

I’ve been hanging out at ScienceBlogs for a while, mostly in the Brain and Behavior section because, well, once upon a time at least I was interested enough in the topic to get a degree in it. One day, I wandered onto ScienceBlogs front page, where recent articles are listed, and discovered one of the best toys ever. You want to put an ever-changing array of information on a bunch of interesting topics at my fingertips? I’m all over that. So I surfed.

After a while, I noticed that I kept ending up in the same place. Not all the time, but more than even Greg’s insane number of blog posts would account for. Because, of course, the place I kept finding myself was Greg Laden’s Blog. So I decided to hang out for a while to see what else was going on.

I’m glad I stayed. I’ve been having great fun. I’ve been trying to perfect the art of smacking the trolls without feeding them (I’ll let you know if I ever get there). I’ve learned tons about evolution and ecosystems that I really need to know for the kind of science fiction I want to write and been entertained while doing it. I’ve been made to examine my own ideas by dealing with someone who’s come to similar conclusions for different reasons. I’ve had arguments that have sharpened my wits, my research skills, my ideas, and my writing. I’ve “met” wonderfully unusual people I’d have been unlikely to come across on my own. I’ve even guest blogged, which was a hoot, despite a niggling feeling that the opportunity should have gone to a student.

And I have, for the first time, really talked with another blogger about blogging–about purpose and strategy, about etiquette and ethics, about voice and content. That means I’ve had to think about those things, because I hadn’t before. So for those of you who hate my blog in it’s current incarnation (which is really the same as the old one, just more so), you can lay part of the blame at Greg’s feet. Of course, if you’re reading this at all, there’s a good chance it’s because of the link love Greg’s thrown my way–in which case, the blame is all his. :)

So for all that, Greg, and for saying things like, “things are more complex than that,” on a regular basis, thank you. And may you have a very happy birthday, today and for years to come.

I Love Geraldo Rivera

That has to be pretty close to the top of the “Things I Never Thought I’d Say” list. Nonetheless, tonight, it’s true. The man is an egotistical blowhard, but he’s currently plastered himself and his mustache all over the right story and all that wind is keeping the right flame alive.

Unless you live in a little pink bubble (hi, Laura!), there’s a good chance you’ve heard about John Freshwater, the IDiot middle school “science teacher” who decided his desk made a good pulpit. He’s the guy who “did improperly use an electrostatic device on…students in his science class in a manner that was not in compliance with the manufacturer’s instructions” (source)–by burning crosses onto their arms.

Freshwater is going away, after some much-belated action by the school board, making a few people very unhappy. One of the most vocal, Dave Daubenmire, who’s had his own difficulties with the establishment clause, defended Freshwater with, “With the exception of the science experiment, John Freshwater is teaching the beliefs and values that the majority of people in this community agree with.”

I just about choked on that one, without even getting to the second part of the sentence. “With the exception of the science experiment”? With the what? We’re supposed to ignore the deliberate combination of high voltage and students’ skin? You just don’t get an exception for that. The very idea left me incoherent.

Luckily, it didn’t do the same to Rivera. Daubenmire was on his program trying to claim the mantle of martyrdom for Freshwater, but the only cross Rivera wanted to talk about was the one burned into a student. He said, “when you mess with a student physically like that you get fired, I don’t care what your religion is.”

So Geraldo Rivera is my hero, at least until he opens his mouth again. At which point, the next question ruffling the mustache should really be, “And where has the school board been all these years?”

Vieille Lune

Oh. Oh, dear. Theatre de la Jeune Lune is done. Not failed, but done.

By rights, they should have failed spectacularly and done it long ago. A theater troupe that ambitious, that audacious, should have failed before I ever heard of them. Don Juan Giovanni, an opera and play performed at the same time by two sets of actors? Of course audiences don’t want anything that strange, challenging, unsettling. Not Minnesota audiences. But Minnesota is where this highly physical, lush, surreal company decided to settle, and they thrived here. Fourteen years without a space and sixteen in the building they renovated.

The magic of theater is supposed to evaporate when you look behind the scenes and see the mechanisms, but it didn’t do that at Jeune Lune. I volunteered there, prepping the new building for tours, so I got to see it all. Posters for old shows, the odd properties collection (including the rubber butts from The Seven Dwarfs), the overwhelming costumes that were just as stunning up close as on the stage. We hauled it all out and turned it over to find the bits that should be on display. All of it was covered in that special theater dust–not the gray stuff that makes you sneeze, but the knowledge that, somehow, the simple things we held in our hands had made magic in front of an audience.

I even got to make a little bit of that magic. One of the other things I did as a volunteer was make ridiculous desserts for opening night receptions–the kind that are rich and pretty enough that no one feels put out by only getting a tiny slice. For Conversations After a Burial, we got the idea to do something a little different. In the play, the characters make pot-au-feu, so we decided to serve some at the reception. I volunteered to make it while the show was going on.

The theater had only been in the building for about a year at that point, so none of us could predict what would happen. It was intermission before I discovered that the smell of the cooking stew was making its way into the theater. It was a little touch of realism that no one would have thought to add, although someone did ask whether I wanted to keep making it for the run of the show. The audience thought it was deliberate and ate it up–the smell and the pot-au-feu.

I changed jobs not too much later to one that interfered with things like ushering at performances for school kids and setting up for receptions, so I stopped being a part of Jeune Lune history. Jeune Lune didn’t stop. They kept making history for many more years. But soon, that’s all that will be left.

Bethany isn’t the only one feeling sad today.