On Minnesota Nice

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Minnesota Nice is a thing. It’s a real social phenomenon that happens here in Minnesota and in other places with similar climates. Exactly what it is, however, is up for debate.

On the one side, you have the people who celebrate Minnesota Nice. Look at all those lovely Minnesotans! You’ll never hear a bad word said about a soul. Minnesotans are polite and ready to smile at anyone. There’s no better place in the world to need the help of a stranger, whether it’s directions or a jump start for your car in sub-zero weather.

On the other side, there are the people who insist Minnesota Nice isn’t nice at all. It’s just a euphemism for passive-aggression. Minnesotans look friendly, but they’re as cold as their winters. They already have all the friends they want, thank you very much, and they have since high school. If you don’t, well, you’re on your own. Newbies beware.

Oh, the arguments that happen over which of these is the “real” Minnesota Nice. Are we Minnesotans underrated angels or overhyped demons?

We’re neither, of course, or both, depending on how much you like your hyperbole. But the simple truth of the matter is that Minnesota Nice is all of those things, and they’re not particularly separable from each other. How could they be? They all come from the same place. [Read more…]

What I’m There to Do

I’ve been escorting for the past few weeks at the local reproductive health clinic. That is to say, I’ve been making sure people who want and need abortions are able to get past the local holy rollers to get the health care they need.

Things got a little ugly on the sidewalk this past weekend. Not unusually ugly, I suspect, but ugly in a noteworthy way, in a way that could make some people very uncomfortable with clinic escorting.

It started with a protester almost being run over. That wasn’t the ugly part, but it was a clue something was up. The driver of the car was doing a particularly aggressive parking job. Ann (if I had to guess) smelled strong emotions and was on the car before it was parallel to the curb, much less stopped. She had to duck out of the way more than once. I was annoyed, mostly at the thought of having to supply emergency aid if she were injured.

It looked like a parent-child situation, though I don’t know. I didn’t ask. It’s not my business. By child, I mean a girl probably in her mid-teens. By parent, I mean a woman much closer to my age. She was angry and bossy. The girl was crying and reluctant to get out of the car.

She did get out, eventually, into the space the other escort had made. (There were only two of us that morning, to about 10 protesters.) By this time, Ann was yelling to the other protesters that the girl was being coerced, that she didn’t want to have an abortion but was being forced to. They converged on the pair. [Read more…]

Mock the Movie: Not How Any of This Works Edition

There’s something heartwarming about having people think of you every time they watch a truly terrible movie. Also something a little scary. Still, every once in a while, we find a movie this way we need to inflict on ourselves and others (mostly others).

Icetastrophe is one of these movies. Want to know what this movie is like? Picture a production crew asking themselves just how wrong they could get the science without adding any entertainment value by it, then saying, “But we need more explosions.”

This one is available on Netflix. [Read more…]

The Reading List, 1/4/2015

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

  • Bookstore puts Trump, Carson in ‘Humor’ section“–“‘There are a lot of people, particularly on the other side, who really have a very different philosophy of America,’ Carson said during the interview.”
  • ‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’: Why I Refuse To Educate Bigoted People“–“Here’s my experience: when someone I’ve called ignorant demands I educate them, they don’t want me to be patient—they want me to have infinite patience, to listen to them affably, without anger, however they behave, and to treat anything they say as valuable.”
  • What No One Said about Rey (Star Wars Spoilers!)“–“In the originals, Leia was competent and capable and became a role model for generations of girls, but all three films were filled with hot princess comments.”
  • A Sensitive Subject: On Family and Sincere Insensitivity“–“And there it is, her gift to me on my birthday. The candles are blown out, and the wish is made. Her wish, not mine.”
  • New Chrome App Helps Women Stop Saying ‘Just’ and ‘Sorry’ in Emails“–“Still, part of me always cringes when people tell women that the way they speak or write is wrong. One reason why women have adopted these kinds of speech and writing patterns is because, historically, they’ve gotten pushback for appearing too decisive and demanding (read: just as decisive and demanding as men).”
  • Lost Soles“–“Most were shocked to hear that it had even happened, even though they—like my husband, who didn’t realize I’d disappeared to the bathroom because I’d been horribly hurt, because I didn’t tell anyone, because no one was looking for it—were standing right next to me when it happened.”
  • The Developer Formerly Known as FreeBSDGirl“–“I had talked to someone from the FreeBSD Foundation earlier on the phone about what was happening. During this same conversation, they actually said ‘maybe you should be nicer.'”
  • The Sudden But Well-Deserved Fall of Rahm Emanuel“–“For twenty years now, there have been those who say that this emperor never had any clothes on in the first place. Given the speed and intensity of his fall, perhaps it’s time to reconsider their case.”
  • A New Year’s Resolution For Science Advocates: Don’t Cry Wolfe“–“Wolfe draws in followers with cute, inspirational, and share-worthy graphics and posts, and then hits them with far less innocuous content.”
  • 3 Keys to Progress the Secular Community Needs in 2016“–“We live in a white-oriented, male-centered, heteronormative culture. Make it a habit to remove yourself from the typical whitewashed, insular narratives you’ve grown accustomed to and immerse yourself in the plight and outlook of others foreign to your background and worldview.”
  • The En-Gendering Of Genius“–“And that is why, in responding to this year’s Edge Question, I first began to write about the icecaps. But perhaps the insignificant measure we assign to the under-estimation of the creative potential of more than half our population is itself a manifestation of the problem.”

Saturday Storytime: Andromache and the Dragon

Oh, this story. This is a first fiction publication for Brittany Pladek.

“Why are you still here, human?” she asked, looking sideways at Andromache. “We have made our pact.”“I’m interested,” said Andromache.

“Hrm,” the dragon replied. Her long tongue flickered higher. With a crackle, her splintery jaws widened and her throat undulated with swallowing. The dragon finished her first mouthful, and the sour brown of her scale-leaves seemed to soften. A sated sigh rippled the branches cradling her belly.

Andromache stepped forward so she was in the dragon’s line of sight. “What do desires taste like?” she asked.

The dragon’s eye, a single gleaming berry, turned towards her. “You see,” she continued, “we — I — only feel wants. I can only know what I desire and desire it. I have no sense for its flavors, its complexities. But you will taste all of ours.” The eye did not turn. “I am curious about the difference.”

Dragons do not smile, but the thicket of that massive body flared its twigs for a moment. The dragon lowered her head to reveal a second berry of deep sea green.

“What do you want, human?”

“I — ”

With a dart like a sparrow, the dragon’s tongue flicked out and danced over the crown of Andromache’s head.

“Your need tastes like emptiness,” she rumbled, “like the crumbled soil in the hole where a tree has been uprooted, or the ache of a missing limb.” Her eyes glowed. “Do you know this need, human?”

Andromache stared back. The old loss rose through her limbs like blood, and her shoulders straightened as they always did, with almost the same vigor as she had felt when her husband had held them, a long time ago. “I know it,” she said quietly.

Raising her head, the dragon rustled her body in approval, each slim twig quaking with what Andromache guessed was laughter.

“You do!” she said. “How unusual. You are a step ahead of your fellows. They do not know what they want, and so they do not know when I have taken it.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is.”

“I spoke with one yesterday,” Andromache continued, “and the child she will bear has made her happier than anything ever could.”

The dragon laughed again, rustling. “Not all desires are so simple,” she said. “Even if your friend’s child had been that day’s tribute.”

“Then what — ”

But the dragon’s tongue had flicked up again, and her jaw’s branches were unlacing. As she lifted her nose, the lattice of her chest bellied outwards, and her pliant throat undulated. She seemed to drink — not one sip this time, but long full draughts. A tender green blushed the dry leaves of her scales. Andromache watched in silence as the drab, parched fingers of the scrub brush plumped with a satiety they had never known. The bare branches of the dragon’s ribs clouded with leaves; her tail and muzzle flashed in flowers that curled immediately into berries. On the grey beach washed with grey waves she stood on the sand, a hymn of light and color, a singing forest, complete unto herself.

After the final draught, the dragon turned again to Andromache. Her head hung with eyes. “I am full,” she said in a voice of leaves and water. “Will you come again, human?”

For a long moment, Andromache stared at her many shining eyes. Then she said, “I will.”

Keep reading.

“Secular Social Justice”, Donald R. Wright on Atheists Talk

An atheism that changes nothing about the world but whether people believe in gods is a weak atheism. A humanism that concerns itself only with the flourishing of people who are already comfortable is a weak humanism. A vigorous secular movement requires engagement with the major issues and human rights challenges of our time. The Secular Social Justice conference, this January 30 and 31 in Houston, Texas, embraces that mission. From the conference website:

The conference will address the lived experiences, cultural context, shared struggle and social history of secular humanist people of color and their allies.  It will focus on topics such as economic justice, women of color beyond faith, LGBTQ atheists of color, African American Humanist traditions in hip hop, racial politics and the New Atheism and more.

This Sunday, Donald R. Wright of Houston Black Non-Believers, one of the organizers of the Secular Social Justice conference, joins us to discuss the upcoming conference. We’ll also talk about 2014’s Moving Social Justice conference, out of which this conference grew.

Related Links:

Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to radio@mnatheists.org during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Follow Atheists Talk on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. If you like the show, consider supporting us with a one-time or sustaining donation.

The Reading List, 12/31/2015

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

Best of 2015

It’s been a while since I’ve done a year-end review of my writing, but this year feels like the right time. I’ve written less here than usual, having done more activism off the blog, but I’ve also written more pieces I’m proud of on their own, not just for how they’ve shifted the conversations we’re having about important things, than I have in years. So here are some the posts you may not want to miss from 2015.

Power and ‘Political Correctness’“–“Institutions with decades of practice and journalists with professional training in the exercise of their power cannot or do not manage any better than that. This makes it ridiculous to point to the missteps of individuals who are new to power as indicative of broad failings of the group to which these people belong. Doing so is a basic exercise in essentialism, the fundamental attribution error occasionally leavened with racism or sexism.”

Family Matters: How Geek Communities Turn Dysfunctional“–“Unfortunately, many of the problems of these spaces are the problems of family as well. We pressure each other to conform to the way ‘we’ do things, whether our traditions are helpful or harmful. People play favorites, both in relatively harmless and grossly toxic ways. Abuse is perpetrated, both among peers and across inequities of position and resources. We protect the family as a unit over the individuals who make it what it is.

Right Where Dr. A Pinched“–“Again, other people disagree with you, both about it being cute and about it being intimidating. You’re trying to speak for a generation (or two) of women whose opinions you haven’t done the basics to assess. If you want to say, ‘I and the other women who didn’t find it objectionable didn’t find it objectionable’, go ahead. It’s a much, much weaker statement and meaningless as an argument, but it at least has the benefit of being true.”

Religion and Atheism in Geek Spaces“–“As someone who spends a lot of time on atheist activism, I often find majority-atheist geek spaces more relaxing than atheist-activist spaces. They feel less like work, and I have a lot of friends who either aren’t atheists or aren’t activists. I have an admitted interest in keeping these spaces functioning for their original purposes. As someone who pursues atheist activism as social justice, I also have an interest in making sure atheists don’t cause the same problems for others that we’ve faced as a religious minority.” [Read more…]

The Reading List, 12/29/2015

I share a lot of links on Twitter and Facebook that I don’t blog about because I don’t have much to add. The reading list is a periodic feature where I share those links with my blog audience too. Of course, you’re still welcome to follow me on Twitter.

Saturday Storytime: The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time

I try to notice new names when I’m reading for this feature. One of the glories of the current F&SF short story market is that it’s big enough to give us a chance to discover new authors. Still, even when I find someone new to me, it’s rarely a first sale. This story from Tamsyn Muir is an exception.

Daniel, though, had bore up well. He’d only once really lost his temper, when her kitchen parsley bit his fingers: “Why can’t you have a normal house instead of—this stupid, temperamental Disney shack,” he’d snapped. “And the water pressure is terrible.” For five weeks neither of his cellphones got reception there and Danny banged all the doors.

But with Daniel, any annoyance he demonstrated was usually awkwardness, and under the staid curtness of his day-to-day Chartered Stockbroker face he liked chinchillas as well as laptops. They were two people who understood each other completely: She understood his irritability, his privacy, his inability to be serious with her when he was serious all day with everyone else. He understood just about everything with her, including a lot of things she wished he didn’t. They were as devoted to each other as two people could be, and every lunchtime when he was at his office desk and she was marking university papers they would ring up to ask what the other was eating. Accepting her magical house was a small issue.

Anyway, anything 14 Arden Lane did never lasted; when the house felt it had made its point, it stopped. Usually. One of the chinchillas had been purple forever.

Now that she was forty-two Rosamund Tilly could tell when the build-ups were reaching explosion point. The ivy trellises around the house would be taut and trembling, the pretty crazy-paved path curling inward trying to claw the long grass verge. Even the dust would smell like firework smoke as she dragged a cloth haphazardly over her collections of glass cats. Years ago a build-up had made her accidentally wipe off her youngest daughter’s eyebrows, and Snowdrop had gone around with her fringe brushed down and full of bitter complaints. Her tweenage feelings had been further hurt by her mother finding it hilarious, but the point was underscored: Rosamund Tilly really couldn’t control what happened or when.

Thursday week the house made her hiccup a butterfly, and at that point she knew there was going to be a problem. 14 Arden Lane was of late empty and lonely now that it had lost the children and most of the chinchillas, and the house would sullenly take it out on her in sometimes vicious ways. Just a month ago great snakelike twists of wormy mud slithered out the kitchen sink, coiling over her dishes and bending her forks, and that had made Dr. Tilly remember the crabs.

That night Danny came over from the office after a long day of chartered stockbrokering and surfed pictures of cats on his laptop as she fidgeted. “A watched pot never boils,” he said.

“Don’t give the house ideas with ‘boil,’ you animal.”

“Remember how aggressive it got when you put down new carpet, with the chimney and the goats?” He was clicking through pictures of disapproving rabbits, sitting next to her on the sofa. “I’m waiting for the day when you form a new plane of existence and your evil self replaces you, and I’ll be able to tell her by the moustache.”

“You are so flip,” said Rosamund. “Why do you have to be so flip?”

“I’m just here to look after you, Rose,” he said, and that was pretty adorable so she put her feet into his lap and prodded his computer with her socks. Daniel Tsai had long-sufferingly helped her raise two children, sixteen chinchillas and read her thesis, but he’d been obliged to: In primary school they had exchanged teal and fuschia friendship bracelets, a lifelong commitment if ever there was one. “Well? Go on and tell the house to hurry up, as the suspense is killing me.”

Rosamund Tilly folded herself into a lotus pose instead, which always gently bemused him and disgusted her two daughters. Being able to fold oneself into a lotus was a payoff from having done yoga when it wasn’t popular and being a hippie when it wasn’t fun anymore, when she’d prided herself on having the widest bellbottoms in all Hartford and fifty-six recipes involving carob. When she had moved into 14 Arden Lane she’d had carrot-coloured hair so long she could sit on it and towered three inches over Danny, who wasn’t short, so she supposed the house had liked her out of pure shock.

Her ears popped, like they did on a descending airplane. “I think something’s coming,” she said.

Danny was looking at cats again. “So’s Christmas.”

Not a lot happened, at first. There was a little tingly smell like ozone, and a sense that she’d just breathed in a lungful of water and had to spit it out. Needle-sharp shivers started at her ankles and worked their way up. She closed her eyes very tightly, and when she opened them again there was Danny, waiting, eyes crinkling a little quizzically.

“Well?” he said. “Did worlds collide?”

“Not for me,” she said, and the sensation flared briefly again: more like the shadow of a feeling than the first sharp injection of it. Her vision blurred a little, but she wasn’t sure as they hadn’t turned on all the lights in the sitting-room. The house liked it when they thought conscientiously about the environment. Dr. Tilly worried that something dreadful was about to happen.

“Well?” Danny said. “Did worlds collide?”

Keep reading.