How I spent my Fathers’ Day: In my musical man cave, trying to figure out how to make all the stuff I bought work. And the results were — well, pleasantly productive! I figured out how to play guitar and bass directly in my DAW, apply effects, chop up loops and beats and fiddle with their various values, like volume, and generally move a step up from just staring into my computer with a furrowed brow wondering how to make the damn thing function. Progress!
As evidence of this progress, this track, which, while I hasten to add is not particularly good (it’ll be a while before “good” is a thing I can say about my musical fiddling about), is nonetheless a substantial step forward in my ability to use my music equipment. For example, with the exception of the drum tracks, I actually played all the musical instruments on the track: Guitar, bass and keyboards. Those parts aren’t complicated, but they’re me, and this is the first time I’ve actually multitracked myself playing instruments. There is some irony in me using drum programming when that is the instrument that I am actually competent on, but look, my drum set is too far away from the preamp to be easy to plug in at the moment. I stand by my musical choices, such as they are.
Hope you all had a fine Father’s Day, if that’s a thing you celebrate.
Today is the first day Juneteenth is a national holiday in the United States (for federal workers it was observed yesterday because today is the weekend), and I was asked in email what thoughts I had about it and how I might be celebrating it. Well:
1. I think it’s a fine idea as a national holiday, and I support its inclusion on the holiday calendar (and even if I didn’t it’s there now anyway, so).
2. As a white person, I’ve never celebrated it and I have no idea how to celebrate it, because fundamentally it’s not about me (except in a distaff and not exactly positive way), and other than knowing it exists, I’ve not actively engaged with it before. So, as a matter of prudence, and not wanting to make an ass of myself, I want to take my cues about it from those who have celebrated it all along, which is to say, Black Americans.
The original Juneteenth commemorated the day in 1865 that slaves in Galveston, Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — which, it should be noted, had been issued three years before, so this was not a great look on the white folks who had been keeping that news in their pocket. Juneteenth started being celebrated informally by Black Texans the next year, and over time it’s been recognized by various states, and then this year was made a formal national holiday after unanimous consent in the Senate and by the vast majority of the House, not counting 14 Representatives who seemed bound and determined to make a show out of being racist assholes. And here we are.
I think having Juneteenth as a national holiday is a good thing, but I’m also aware that its elevation to that stature does not come without criticism. As others have noted, the irony of elevating Juneteenth while the Republicans are actively stripping Black people of their ability to vote in a manner unseen since Jim Crow, and banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory (which is almost never taught in elementary or secondary schools, and would almost certainly be unconstitutional to ban at the university level, so this is pure racist pandering), among all the other things systemic racism inflicts on Black Americans, is pronounced. Juneteenth as a national holiday is progress, sure, but it’s progress against a concerted and deeply racist undertow of current Republican politics. The GOP doesn’t get to point to its Juneteenth vote to suggest it’s not the party of white supremacy in this country; the Democrats don’t get to point to it to suggest they’ve done enough.
Likewise for most white folks! At the Black blog The Root, writer Michael Harriot offered up “The Caucasians’ Guide to Celebrating Juneteenth,” which is both amusingly exasperated and deadly seriously caustic about how white people should approach a celebration that is not theirs and is not about them, which has now been made into a national holiday. I suggest reading it because it’s a good read and because it makes points worth making about what Juneteenth is and is not, with specific reference to white folks. It’s useful, if not especially hand-holdy, but it’s not Harriot’s job to hold your (or my) hand on this stuff.
So how am I celebrating Juneteenth this year? Well, I’m not going to try to angle an invite to a cookout, and I’m not going to pretend this means we’ve gotten over racism, so let’s all hug. I’m going to mark Juneteenth by using it as a day of contemplation on what Black Americans have been telling us about white supremacy in the United States, and by thinking about what I need to do to make the United States today better and more equitable for Black Americans specifically and non-white folks generally (and then, you know, doing that, on more than just Juneteenth). I’m going to use it as a day of learning and listening and generally opposing white supremacy. That seems an appropriate way to note the holiday for me.
As for the future, let’s see how it evolves, under the direction of those who have celebrated it all along.
A couple weeks ago I took a picture of Krissy with my bass, just for fun, and she remarked — wrong-handedness aside — that she liked the feel and weight of the bass; it felt like an instrument she could get into. Well, I didn’t need much encouragement from that point; I snuck online when she wasn’t looking and picked up a left-handed bass for her as an anniversary gift, and arranged with a bassist friend of ours to give her a few lessons. If everything works out, Krissy and I will have our own punk band very very soon.
“Hey, Scalzi,” you ask, “any more choice thoughts about your new little basement studio?” Why, yes, I have a couple!
* First, folks, I’m sooooooo in over my head right now. I know I’ve said that before, but let me reiterate that I’ve really overcommitted. I’ve, like, bought all the software (to go along with all the hardware, which I also bought), and while buying all that stuff was fun in a retail therapy sort of way, now I actually have to learn all of it. And that’s also fun? But also kind of like work? But if I don’t do it I’ve literally spent a whole basket of money on nothing?
Mind you, I absolutely plan on learning all this stuff. But at the moment I’m at the very bottom of the learning curve looking up and going, yuuuuup, this is gonna take a bit. The good news is, while I can’t guarantee at the end of it that any of the songs I might write will be any good, if I learn this stuff like I want to, at least they will sound good. This will be the aural equivalent of making terrible food but plating it spectacularly. We work with what we have.
* I do think at this point I’m pretty much maxxed out on hardware and software, however, at least for the rest of 2021. More accurate, and per the point above, I have enough on hand that adding more just means I won’t get to it anytime soon, and even if I did I wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it. So again: Time to work with what I have, and then see after a while if there’s anything else that’s useful and/or necessary.
And here the musicians snicker, and, well: Fair. But I’m gonna try to hold this line for now. Don’t mock me! Okay, mock me a little.
* The most recent major purchase for the room: A friggin’ chair, because I temporarily used a dining room table chair for a couple of days and it almost wrecked my lower back. I forgot I was old and my body is looking for any excuse to fall apart. The studio chair is not as swanky as my office chair, but it’s more than good enough, and when I sit in it I don’t feel my vertebrae trying to slip sideways out of my back. Also it matches the carpet and The Beast, and that’s nice.
* Finally, I’m discovering the drawbacks to having the studio in the basement. The first is that this is where we keep the cat boxes, so there’s the faint smell of, shall we say, “cat business” about. It was always there but I wasn’t in the basement for hours on end, and now I am. So, that’s not great. I expect I’ll be cleaning out the cat boxes more frequently than I currently do, which is probably for the best anyway.
More pressing, however, is that the basement is damn cold. Which makes sense: Cold air sinks, and the basement is underground and largely windowless. But also: Brrrrr. I’ve taken to leaving a hoodie and thick socks down there as part of the studio basic equipment. This gives me an excuse to play my drums to warm myself up.
So, yeah. The easy part of buying stuff is mostly over. Now comes the hard part of learning stuff. Let’s see where it goes from here.
I’m 52, and today is the 26th anniversary of me and Krissy getting married, which means, if I haven’t entirely lost my ability to do math, I’ve been married to Krissy for almost exactly half my life, and have had her in my life for an even larger percentage. Not gonna lie, looking to increase those percentages quite a bit before it’s all said and done. She’s terrific.
I hope you have a great Scalzi Anniversary; we plan to.
The women of The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels have a most unusual talent — one that their society most decidedly does not approve of. Author India Holton raises the roof on this unusual ability… and why it was the one she chose for her cast of characters to have and use.
The big idea which inspired my fantasy romcom The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels was actually quite a small, simple idea to begin with. I wanted to write self-assured women characters who possessed power in their world – in this case, a magical incantation which allowed them to fly buildings. It seemed straightforward enough to me, and I settled in to have some fun with a group of ladies I intended to send swaggering and swashbuckling through an alternate Victorian England.
But as the story unfurled, all the intrinsic elements of a woman’s existence kept arising to block the characters’ power or outright take it from them. From how they should sit in a chair to their actual right to exist as independent people, these wicked lady pirates who disregard law to wreak havoc in their weaponised flying houses still find themselves constrained by gender-based social rules, misogyny, or male domination.
I could of course have chosen to ignore these influences, since I was creating a sideways version of reality. Or I could have chosen to lean the Wisteria Society even further away from niceness, into a reckless brutality which cared nothing for any rule. But I became fascinated by the dichotomy between female power and powerlessness.
Setting the book in Victorian England, a time in which even the Queen-Empress herself submitted to the dominant patriarchy, was an obvious choice. Every period of history has repressed women, of course, but it was the Victorians’ sentimentalisation of this, with their whole idea of “The Angel in the House,” that hooked me. So, I had my women turn their houses into battleships. Even so, they would never dream of hanging an unfashionably coloured curtain in their windows – and woe betide anyone who tries to call upon them outside of visiting hours! One might be a pirate, but that doesn’t mean one should be uncouth.
Although it seems daft that a woman capable of stealing diamonds from a duchess would still submit to the etiquette of how to address that duchess properly – or which spoon to use at the tea table while planning a heist – such disjunctions have in fact been normal for women throughout history. (And yes, it is daft!) Living in New Zealand, I’ve watched several female Prime Ministers wield authority with a capable hand and brisk intelligence, and still be scrutinised on their parenting choices, clothing choices, and how often they smile, in ways male leaders never are.
And so, my small idea quickly become a major theme which shaped every relationship dynamic in the book. While I hadn’t set out to create a treatise on feminism (not even a wacky, ridiculous treatise with bonking – on the head with parasols, if you please), looking back it seems inevitable that, as a woman author writing about women with power, I was going to find myself addressing feminist themes to some degree.
Ironically, the magical power my ladies possess actually made it easier to explore the elements of powerlessness. But this is one of the great things about writing fantasy. We can take a rather ordinary idea and twist it, conflate it, or blow it to pieces with a cannon fired from an elegant parlour window. So, the Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels enter the battle of the sexes with a cry of yo ho ho and a cup of tea. And they have riotous, villainous fun doing it – which in the end felt to me like the boldest feminist statement of all those I tried to make with this book.
Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of me trying Japanese snacks! Today I’m reviewing the Sakuraco June 2021 Box with my dad. This month’s theme is citrus, which is perfect considering summer just started! Since we’ve done this three times before, I’m just gonna run through a quick explanation and then jump right in!
Sakuraco is a subscription box company in Japan that curates Japanese tea time snack boxes, with each box of snacks containing 20 authentic Japanese snacks such as castella cakes, senbei crackers, mochi, and more. The boxes also contain one home good item, such as a cup, plate, or chopsticks. Now that you’re up to speed, let’s rate some snacks!
Komachi Chestnut Pie:
This little golden brown treat was a great start to this box. My dad and I agreed that the chestnut filling was quite good, but my dad thinks the pie crust surrounding it was a little underwhelming, and a little too bready. I thought it was pretty perfect, honestly, no complaints from me, I really liked it! Overall, it was super tasty, pretty moist, and we would definitely eat it again.
SakuSaku Seaweed Rice Cracker:
This salty snack was flippin’ delicious. Unlike rice cakes here in the US, this little snack was comprised of tiny, individual rice balls that fell apart completely differently than what we’re used to. It made for an entirely different mouth feel, but was quite pleasant. The flavor of this was really intense, like a punch of umami flavor, but super good. We would definitely eat this again.
Fresh Orange Cake:
I have never had orange cake before, and I was little skeptical how it would taste, but I can say with full certainty that it is amazing! This one in particular was citrusy but not acidic, super flavorful, moist, and even has peel pieces in the batter which definitely contributes to that fresh taste. We would definitely eat this again.
Plum & Wasabi Okaki:
If they hadn’t prepared me by putting “wasabi” in the title of these, the heat would’ve totally thrown me for a loop. It was an intense heat upon consumption, but it mellowed out quickly and doesn’t burn like crazy or anything. It definitely doesn’t taste like plum, though. It tastes a lot like shrimp, my dad and I agreed. The texture is perfectly pleasant and they have a nice crunch. We would eat these again.
I swear I get one of these in every box! Though I think maybe they’ve all been from different brands because they’ve definitely varied in size. Anyways, this one was pretty okay! It has red bean paste in the middle, but this time the paste had whole beans in it instead of just being a smooth paste. It was like having chunky peanut butter instead of smooth. My dad was not a fan of the whole beans, and said they were odd. I don’t mind the whole beans at all, but I would say that it was not sweet enough. The pancakes were great, though! My dad says he would eat it again if the paste was smooth instead of chunky, and I would eat it again regardless of the whole bean paste.
Summer Fruits Jelly:
Upon opening this snack, I commented that it smelled like hair product. I didn’t expect it to taste like that either, but here we are. This snack totally tastes like when you’re taking a shower and accidentally get conditioner in your mouth. Despite not liking the taste, and not particularly loving the texture, either, I do like the aesthetic of it. The fruit suspended in gelatin is kind of a cool look. We would definitely not eat this again.
Waraku no Sato Salt Yokan:
This little snack is slippery as an eel. Despite being named Salt Yokan, it’s not particularly salty, and honestly it tastes like red bean paste, which I like. It was weirdly dense, but in a good way. We would definitely eat this again.
I swear I’ve gotten this one before, too! But maybe I’m wrong. Taiyaki is always one of those things that I’m super excited for, and then it turns out just okay. Really, this snack was fine overall. The filling was okay, the bread was okay, nothing special or crazy about it. We would eat it again, but we are not enthused to.
Mochi Azuki Jelly:
I know the last couple times I’ve tried these mochi jelly type of cup thingies, I’ve hated them. But this one was actually pretty okay! And I’ll tell you why. This one was firmer than all the other ones I’ve tried. Much less… wiggly. Although this one didn’t have much flavor. It was very plain, even the mochi was like, unflavored. The mochi was quite dense, though, which made for a good mouth feel. This mochi jelly had a ton of beans in it, which is good if you like them, like me, and bad if you don’t really, like my dad. My dad says he would eat it again if it didn’t have the beans, and I’m undecided if I would partake in this jiggly treat again.
Cocoa and Orange Fruit Tart:
This was the snack I was most excited for, but unfortunately it did not meet my expectations. Though it did have a good flavor, as orange and chocolate is quite good together, it was ridiculously dry. Honestly, it tasted a lot like a Fig Newton, which is nowhere near orange and chocolate, but somehow also conveyed the orange and chocolate flavor. We would eat it again, despite dryness.
Hojicha Warabi Mochi:
I’m so tired of eating these gross mochi thingys with roasted soy flour, but nonetheless I persevered. This one, surprisingly, was also not as bad as usual, as it was firmer than most of these things, but not firm enough (unlike the one previously mentioned). The flavor was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it until my dad said it tasted like jellied tea, and I realized it really does taste like black tea! I would not eat it again, but my dad said he would and he even finished the whole thing, whereas I couldn’t stand more than a couple bites.
Summer Citrus Monaka:
Much like taiyaki, these monaka wafer snacks are something I’m always excited for, but the wafer part is always awful. Usually, though, the paste inside is good enough that it makes the wafer a tolerable obstacle. However, this one had a weirdly flavored filling that I did not enjoy. To me, it tasted like someone took a bowl of black licorice and then squeezed a lemon over top of it. Literally like citrus and anise. However, my dad said it didn’t taste like anything and that it didn’t have a lot going on flavor-wise. We would not eat it again.
Uji Matcha Cake:
For the final snack, we tried this matcha cake. It was super good! It was moist, soft, had a subtle yet delicious matcha flavor, and was a huge portion, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. The beans didn’t seem to bother my dad this time. We would definitely eat this again.
Here are my dad’s top three snacks from this box: Plum and Wasabi Okaki, Fresh Orange Cake, Hojicha Warabi Mochi
These are my top three snacks: Fresh Orange Cake, Chestnut Pie, Seaweed Rice Cracker
Honorable mention: Uji Matcha Cake
Now that you’ve seen all the snacks, here is the home good that was included!
Japan’s Four Seasons Serving Tray:
Honestly, I really like the design, and a serving tray is a cool thing to include. However this piece is not dishwasher or microwave safe, and it just feels like cheap plastic. It does look nice, though, so it’s alright in my book.
And of course, here is the tea that I don’t try because I feel it’s unfair to review something I know I dislike.
Matcha Infused Genmaicha Tea:
This month’s box was definitely my favorite one yet! It makes me so excited to see July’s. I hope you enjoyed looking through all these unique snacks. Be sure to tell me in the comments which one you’d most like to try! Or if you also subscribe to Sakuraco, tell me which one was your favorite from your box. And have a great day!
Author Christopher Swielder takes a look at what divides not only his characters, but people in our society in his Big Idea for his newest novel, The Orpheus Plot. Read all about how our problems today aren’t so different from a futuristic-space society’s.
It recently occurred to me that I wrote most of The Orpheus Plot between 2016 and 2020. For future generations who might be a little sketchy on early twenty-first century history, this was a) after the invention of the Internet, b) before the COVID-19 pandemic, and c) during the 45th presidency of the United States, when disagreements got so bad that physicists started a petition to replace the term “political polarization” with “political matter/antimatter baryogenesis.”
The Orpheus Plot began with a relatively simple idea: the protagonist, Lucas, is the first kid from the asteroid belt selected to be a cadet in the interplanetary Navy. He’s lived in space his entire life and already knows half of what they’re trying to teach him, but having grown up on a mining ship without a regular school he hasn’t learned half of what the teachers expect him to already know.
What makes Lucas’s story more complicated is that the relationship between the Navy and the miners of the Belt is already tense and deteriorating rapidly. A big part of the Navy’s job is to enforce customs and mining-rights laws that the Belters are unhappy with. Most of the Navy sees miners as dirty, uneducated, and entirely unsuited for their cadet school. Lucas’s odd position as the only Belter kid on the teaching ship Orpheus makes him a focal point for all of the built-up hostility, and he soon becomes embroiled in a plot to hijack the ship and start a revolution in the Belt.
Developing the motivation for central characters like Lucas is often pretty easy. What’s usually harder is the motivation for the antagonists that oppose them. Characters can (and should!) have flaws and contradictions, but they still need to have a reasonable set of goals and a believable view of the world. As any book on writing will tell you, conflict is the key to storytelling. But for conflict to resonate with the reader, it has to emerge naturally from the characters’ core beliefs. To depict a solar system on the brink of civil war, I needed to develop worldviews for the Navy and the Belters that were both understandable and wholly incompatible.
Getting back to our present-day mess, one of the most depressing statistics I’ve read recently is that a majority of both political parties now think that the biggest threat to the United States is the people of the other party. If that had been the premise for a sci-fi novel of thirty years ago, people would have called it dystopian if not outright unbelievable. How can the person living on the next street or in the next town be a threat to the survival of your country? Humans are pretty hard-wired to consider otherness a threat, but we’re also social creatures who tend to see everyone around them as part of their identity. When we’re exposed to otherness for long enough our response is to expand our definition of self so that the otherness ceases to exist. Tell a millennial that there was once uproar over the possibility of a Catholic President and they’ll shake their head in disbelief. They understand the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, but the idea of worrying about it is as silly as caring about whether the President has blond hair.
The problem, unfortunately, is that we’ve stopped being exposed to otherness. We isolate ourselves not geographically but politically, so that the majority of our interactions are with people we already identify with. A century ago, it was virtually impossible for a person to communicate with anyone on the other side of the world. But for the same reasons, it was virtually impossible to not communicate with the ones who lived next door. Technology has made it possible for two people in the same town to develop such different identities that each of them considers the other to be an enemy.
In a sense, the character of Lucas was a response to this self-sorting and divergence of identity. He is a connecting point between two cultures on the brink of conflict. He believes, like I do, that the two sides of his world see each other as enemies only because they’ve both found ways to segregate themselves. His bravery comes from his insistence that he belongs to both sides and his refusal to accept that there needs to be any kind of division at all.
I’m an optimist about humanity’s future. I believe that people over time find ways to break down barriers them and expand their sense of self. I love science fiction because it lets us imagine all the possible ways our world might evolve, and one of my favorite quotes is a line from Arthur Clarke’s Imperial Earth—an example of both his unfailing optimism and his signature throwaway-quote style—where the U.S. President of the year 2276 bemoans the death of ethnic diversity and how “it will be a pity when we’re all the same shade of off-white.” A pity, yes, but also my hope: that over time we will choose to weave a single social fabric and form an identity that is nothing more, and nothing less, than being human.
Here’s how it went down on Twitter today:
Also, yes, we reserved one of the F-150 Lightnings, i.e., the new electric Ford truck that will come out next year. I wrote a Facebook post explaining why, which I will repost below.
So, in 2015, after I signed that big contract with Tor, one of the things I was going to do was secretly buy Krissy a convertible, as a way of showing my appreciation to her for everything that she had done to help us get to that point — as I’ve frequently said, after all, without Krissy, I absolutely would not have the career that I have had.
I was looking at the Mustangs for this, but when I sneakily brought up convertible Mustangs in conversation to her, she was all, “meh, they’re okay I guess,” and then later just straight up bought a beater convertible from a pal for really cheap just to tool around in for the summer (I mean, really cheap; I have musical instruments that cost more). At that point I admitted to her I had been planning to get her a car but that it hadn’t worked out, so, basically, whenever she decided she wanted a new car, she had a redeemable coupon for one.
In the six years since, she hasn’t really thought to redeem this coupon, until this last week when I was showing her some videos about the upcoming electric Ford F-150, which, aside from having very good range for an electric and a massive closed storage space where the engine would be and huge hauling and towing capacity and more electrical outlets than some apartments (including a 240 V outlet), can also, in the event of a power outage, actually power one’s home for two or three days (with an optional installed power inverter, which of course we would absolutely get). Krissy’s eyes lit up like a house whose power was now being provided by a big-ass truck.
Sooooo now we have a reservation in for a Ford F-150 Lightning, and we are both happy: Krissy because she’s going to get a very cool truck which she will absolutely have a use for out here in the country, and me because I finally get to give her a car (and also because it comes with a bunch of super cool technology stuff which I will totally be a geek for). Expect to see Krissy tooling around in this thing sometime in 2022.
You know what I heard this morning? Nothing! Which is the first for a couple of weeks; the cicadas, the literal background hum of the last fortnight, have mostly gone silent. Because they’re dead, you see. They crawled out of the ground, they mated, they laid eggs, and they died. There are a few stragglers still flying about, but they’re like people at a beach resort as autumn begins; they missed almost all of the fun. I hope they find love anyway.
In any event, even they will be gone in a couple of days, and that will be that until 2038. The nice thing around here, however, is that as the cicadas are going, the fireflies are arriving. They’re much more quiet than the cicadas. Not necessarily prettier — I think the cicadas looked pretty cool, actually — but maybe nicer to gaze at on a summer night. It’s a summer of bugs, it is.
As a follow-up to the post from a couple of weeks ago, I now have the music room largely set up; there are a few more things I need to do and get (some acoustical tile; an actual chair), but they’re relatively minor things. I’m ready to fall all the way down the rabbit hole with this stuff now. If I can’t make music with what I have at this point, the problem is me, not what I have to work with.
What you’re not seeing here is the actual mountain of boxes and shipping material much of this stuff came in, so much of it that I think I need to donate to the Arbor Day Society to make up for all the cardboard I caused to be used.
(Oh, and: I did end up getting a Mac after all; a new Mac Mini. For two reasons: One, The Dell is a capable machine but like a lot of ultraportables doesn’t have a lot of physical connectivity. The Mac Mini does and it turns out that’s actually useful with a room full of physical equipment. Two, at the end of the day there’s more and better music creation stuff in the Apple ecosystem, and that’s what I’ll be using this particular computer for. Also, three, Krissy was all, “I know you want one, just get the damn thing,” and who am I to argue with Krissy.)
Again, my plan is when I’m not in my office, writing words, I’m down here in the basement, writing music. I’m not giving up the day job, to be sure. But this isn’t meant to be a side hustle. It’s just meant to be enjoyable for me. And I’m having fun already, so that’s good.
Fucking Christ on a cheese stick, I am so tired of that phrase.
If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard, “as the world opens back up”, “as we return to normality”, or “as things are getting back to normal,” I wouldn’t have to live with my parents.
Companies love something they can “relate” to their customers about. Companies love heartfelt concepts and wholesome ideas they can use to market to their demographics. And they love pretending like they care.
And what gives them a better excuse to pretend like they care than the biggest pandemic of our lifetime?
How many car commercials did you see during the pandemic that started with, “in times of uncertainty”? How many cereal commercials said, “we’ll get through this together?”
After writing that sentence, I Googled “commercials that said ‘in times of uncertainty” and it turns out there’s like actual articles about this phenomenon! Here’s the Wall Street Journal saying that these commercials have a “tragedy template”. This article is from one month into the pandemic. Over a year later, companies are still being as annoying as all hell, but now they’ve shifted from “we’re in this together during this uncertain time” to “as you start to go back outside and are now visiting businesses and spending money again.”
This is literally what they sound like:
Also posted over a year ago. But they just keep coming! Companies keep busting out these “heartfelt” and “compassionate” commercials even though nobody asked for them in the first place.
I don’t want companies to act like they care. It’s just embarrassing on their part. Everyone knows they’re only in it for the money. You know how it’s evident? Because they’re still trying to sell you shit during the pandemic. It doesn’t matter how they frame it, even if they say that times are hard and that they care, they still want you to give them money. If they really cared, would they even advertise?
This idea of “returning to normal” is even more problematic than the insincere, copy and paste, “sad” commercials that companies were doing for months.
This whole “returning to normal” thing isn’t just company and commercial related, though. It’s workplace and school-related, too. The “returning to normal” ideology is toxic for institutions to have, because we aren’t just “going back to normal”. We can’t just shrug it off and go back to how things were.
The problem with these institutions is that they think we’ll just get over it. The pandemic is over now, right? People are getting vaccinated, we don’t have to wear masks anymore, it’s all hunky dory, right? But what these institutions don’t understand is trauma. They can’t see the long-term effects.
The pandemic has changed everything, yet we are expected to return to how things were before. But how can we? These institutions, as well as companies, cannot understand how profoundly the pandemic has affected not just society, but people on the individual scale.
Part of that is because they don’t want things to change. Like I said, the pandemic has changed everything, but what do I mean by that? Because, from the looks of it, almost nothing has actually changed. For example, aside from the vaccine, did we get tax-supported no-cost healthcare? That would have helped. Did we get the institutional level of support that would have been equal to these “uncertain times”? No.
And why would these institutions allow any sort of change when things have been working so well for them up to this point? They’re not going to suddenly turn around and be like, “oh, we’ve realized our mistakes and now see the flaws in the systems we’ve created” because they’ve known all along. They know their systems are fucked up, but it makes them money so why would they stop?
Meanwhile, we as individuals, are completely changed. Maybe you’ve lost loved ones, or lost your job, maybe even lost your home, or got COVID and suffered serious effects. Or maybe nothing really happened to you personally, but you got a front row seat to watch the world around you burn, and that’s traumatizing enough on its own.
Most of us have known for a while that our society and our government are fucked up, but this pandemic really put the final nail in the coffin. It was eye-opening for a lot of people. It showed that we are not cared about, even if a Ford commercial says we are. It showed that our institutions would rather sacrifice us than lose money. And it showed that we would rather sacrifice each other than not go out to eat at Applebee’s.
Yes, things are returning to normal. But only after half a million people died, only after the unemployment rate skyrocketed to new heights, only after the homelessness rate increased, and only after we’ve all sustained trauma that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
But we aren’t feeling, thinking, human beings to these institutions. We are numbers on a graph, we are statistics in the making, we are cogs in the machine. They couldn’t care less if our mental health is less than fucking ideal after over a year of dealing with the pandemic. We are meant only to make them profit, traumatized or not. Depressed or not. Anxious or not. Burnt out or not.
So, I’d really appreciate if companies stopped acting like we’re in this together. Because we aren’t, and we never were.
Fairytales are simple. The bad guys are wicked. We know them by their cruel sneers and ugly faces. (In later forms of media, they will twirl mustaches and sport evil goatees.) They will be punished by the end, often in an especially grisly way if you are reading the classic fairytales transcribed by the Grimm Brothers. Evil queens dance themselves to death on heated iron shoes and mysterious little men rage until they split themselves in half and die. The good are pure, innocent, and rewarded handsomely. The sweet commoner toils without complaint and marries the prince. The imprisoned princess patiently waits for true love’s freeing kiss.
But what if we reverse that?
And not even a full reversal. I never intended to make the evil queen an angelic, pious one, nor the sweet commoner a bloodsucking villain, but wanted to find the magical place where the characters met somewhere in the middle. The morally gray heroes and villains that would have readers questioning who was the ‘good guy’ versus the ‘bad guy’ and hopefully even shift allegiances throughout their read of Gold Spun.
My novel started as a short story with the single challenge of making Rumpelstiltskin the hero. I imagined this mysterious character not as a menacing force, but instead as a quiet, hidden presence that fell in love with the miller’s daughter, wanting to aid her, even if it means losing her. I had fun writing that story, but it wasn’t enough.
Instead of creating the complex, morally gray, deliciously juicy characters I love, I had only flipped the script on Rumpelstiltskin, turning him from villain to hero. I needed to pull him back from the side of good, strand him somewhere in the in-between realm. So I gave him a few more secrets, a few things that like a spool of golden thread, only unravel with time. And I focused on developing the character of the miller’s daughter. In the original tale, she is passive and pure. Sweet and almost silent, she is practically batted between irritating men, as the king demands she make good on the ridiculous claim that did not come from her, but rather her father. She doesn’t even get a name! In a story ALL about the importance of knowing a name!
So I gave her a name. Meet Nor.
And I gave her agency. Nor was now allowed to drive the action in her own story. Gone is the pompous father, replaced by Nor’s own cunning plan to trick villagers into buying straw she claims will turn into gold. Nor became a con artist I could root for, even while seeing her flaws and follies. She deceives people, but only so she could provide for her family. It’s not honest work, and we all know it will land her in a heap of trouble when word gets to the prince that a petty criminal is attempting to swindle his subjects. I knew I was on to something when I both rooted for Nor to succeed and felt it was completely justified that she winds up locked in a room full of straw with a dire warning should she fail to do the impossible.
Fairytales are simple. Real life is not. Life is a murky mess of us trying to do the best we can given our circumstances. The characters in Gold Spun really came together for me when I pulled enough of the fairytale setting to feel familiar, but created characters who were not simple, not pure good or pure evil, but a delicious, tempting, blend of both.
For your entertainment: 20 seconds of the very loud cicada swarm loitering on the crabapple tree in our front yard. They’re definitely swarming right now. Also, enjoy the crabapple tree while you can, it’s mostly dead at this point and we’ll be replacing it soonish. All things must pass, some quickly, like cicadas, and others in a more deliberative fashion, like the crabapple tree. Sorry, that got dark, didn’t it.
This past weekend when I visited Chicago, I did all the usual things such as visit the aquarium, go to the top of the Willis Tower, and ride the Navy Pier Centennial Wheel. Though I’ve done these things a few times before, it was still enjoyable. There was one thing, though, that was new to me, and it was amazing. I’m talking about Chicago’s Underground Donut Tour.
What is a donut tour, you may ask. It’s a roughly two mile long walking tour where you get to not only see four of the best donut shops the city has to offer, but try several different donuts along the way! The donuts you receive on the tour are included in the cost of the ticket. You get to try either one or two pre-selected types of donuts per stop on the tour. If it’s one type, you get half the donut, and if it’s two types, you get a quarter of a donut (so it still equals a half after you’ve had both kinds). The guides that led our tour also provided historical, architectural, and donut related fun facts and stories, so that was a bonus.
On the tour I went on, we went to Doughnut Vault, Firecakes Donuts, Stan’s Donuts, and Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken. I had never heard of any of these places before, but after trying one (or more) types of donuts from their establishments, I can see why they’re on the tour.
First up was Doughnut Vault. We were told that they have a different specialty donut every day, and they change the lineup of specialty donuts every week. What I would give to try every flavor! Alas, I must be satisfied with the one flavor we got to try on the tour, which was Chocolate Hazelnut.
This bad boy started off the tour strong! If you like Nutella and Ferroro Rochers, you would love this donut. It was the perfect amount of decadent without being too much. This one was in my top three for sure, I’d even say it was the runner-up for best donut.
After walking for a bit and crossing a bridge along the way, we arrived at Firecakes Donuts, where we were provided with two different types of donuts: Tahitian Vanilla Iced and Churro.
The Tahitian Vanilla Iced was a smidge subtle, but delicious nonetheless. It was like, almost delicate in terms of the vanilla flavor. The Churro on the other hand was a little more meh, but still perfectly enjoyable overall. We were told that Firecakes Donuts also sells ice cream donut sandwiches, so that’s super cool!
Next on the list was Stan’s Donuts. I actually didn’t get any pictures of the two we tried from there because I was busy drinking the bottle of water the guides handed out (that was our second bottle, both bottles we received were included in the ticket cost).
Honestly, I’m not too torn up about not getting pictures of the Stan’s Donuts donuts, because it was my least favorite stop on the tour. We tried a Biscoff Cookie Spread Donut, and a Red Velvet Donut. As much as I love Biscoff Cookies and Biscoff Cookie Spread, the donut was just okay, and the Red Velvet was fine, as well, but nothing special.
The last stop was the real show-stealer. Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken. You wouldn’t think a place that sells chicken sandwiches would have the most incredible buttermilk old-fashioned donut you’ve had in your life, but you’d be wrong, because they absolutely do.
Honestly, they look a little weird, but trust me when I say this donut is a game-changer. This donut was the single best donut I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of donuts in my day. I’ve even tried several kinds from Voodoo Donuts! This old fashioned really takes the cake, and was by far my favorite on the tour.
There was another donut we got to try at this location, but I was so completely donut-ed out that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it, and I don’t even remember what the flavor offered was. Sorry about that! I’m sure it was good, though.
Anyways, the point of this post is not just to make you jealous with photos of incredibly delicious donuts (that’s just a side benefit). The point of this is to recommend the Underground Donut Tour to you! Not only do they do two different tours in Chicago, but in several cities across America as well! You’ve got an Underground Donut Tour in New York City, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Philadelphia!
I don’t know if all the guides are as awesome as the two from my tour were, but if they are, you’re in for a real treat. The donut tour was one of the most fun things I did in the city, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot. It’s something that’s different and interesting, but won’t break the bank. Tickets are only $30 a person, and kids tickets are even cheaper! They also accommodate to dietary restrictions and allergies! Honestly, what’s not to love?
The next time I’m in Chicago, I’m hoping to get a chance to take their other tour. I did the Downtown one, but they also have a West Loop one, so that’s pretty neat.
Have you ever had donuts from any of these locations before? What did you think? Have you done a donut tour before? What’s your favorite kind of donut? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Like most of my books, the Big Idea for The Water Blade (indeed, for the entire trilogy it kicks off) grew out of a small idea. In this case, a joke. A stupid joke, at that.
I was helping my son move across the country from California to North Carolina. Knowing we had several days of driving ahead and that I had agreed to put together a trilogy proposal for Falstaff Books, I thought this was a good time to think through ideas. John Hartness, founder and publisher, wanted a high fantasy/mystery hybrid, so I decided to start with some world-building and finding a good magic system. My son, drawing upon our many years of childish scatological humor, said to me, “You know what you should do — poop magic.” We then spent too much time expanding that idea in all of its ridiculous silliness to our road weary amusement.
But then my writer brain thought — I wonder if I could actually pull that off.
Obviously, I couldn’t use the word poop. Much too giggle inducing. But when you step out of the silly side of it and think of it as a practical catalyst for some kind of magic, suddenly it becomes dark and disturbing. A bit disgusting. A bit scary.
I could work with that. And I did. I took this one aspect of a people and explored how it bloomed throughout their entire culture. Because that’s what cultures do. One tiny event will ripple through a culture changing big things and small.
In The Water Blade, I created a world with three major countries, each with its own culture, and pitted them against each other. In the western Feral Lands, the Dacci witches use waste matter of all kinds along with bones and teeth to cast their magic. Cultural shifts included an entire religion around what bestows upon them their power to the way a village is shaped (to collect as much waste as possible) to what people wear.
On the eastern coast, a country exists that is having a technological revolution. Guns are replacing swords. Electricity is becoming controllable. Horseless carriages are a reality. Magic is no longer needed. These technologies are shifting the cultural norms, changing the power structure of who is valued and why, as well as bringing pressure on the old religions who can no longer be the sole source of miracles.
Caught in the middle of these two divergent cultures is the Frontier. This land is, on the surface, a typical high fantasy world complete with a King, his knights, and of course, horses. But the pressures from the magic-wielding witches on one side and the growing technological might on the other is fraying away the Frontier’s desire to remain neutral. The kingdom is caught between making alliances and cautioning enemies — never entirely sure which is which and trying not get crushed by the tension.
All of that, of course, could have been nothing more than world-building, but like real-world cultures, these weave throughout the lives of our adventurers. Their actions — big or small — often trigger ripples through the world. And like all books, we see the truth of the idea in our own reality.
When I started writing The Water Blade, nobody had ever heard of COVID. But that small virus has altered everything. And the depths of those changes will be felt for well over a generation. Whether through small things — that wearing masks by some will probably be commonplace for the rest of my life — to much bigger things — the demise/rise of many companies as people shift to online retail and never shift back.
The political fallout is enormous. Worldwide. While there’s a good argument to be made that Trump might have won re-election if COVID never happened, the fact that he lost puts a very different man in the White House. That changes the way the US deals with other countries in the world. And that changes the stability of the world as a whole.
All because of a virus.
Little things grow into big things. And little ideas grow into big ideas.
It’s been an unusually rainy June here in Ohio so far this year, but the one silver lining, as it were, to this is that come sunset, we get some pretty gorgeous clouds going on. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. It’s pretty good compensation for a slightly soggy yard.
For The Unraveling, author Benjamin Rosenbaum discovered in the writing of the novel that the tale he wanted to tell was not necessarily the tale he was then telling — and to tell the true tale, someone else in the story would have to step up.
The Unraveling didn’t begin as The Unraveling.
It didn’t begin as a far-future social comedy coming-of-age story, or a reductio-ad-absurdum satire of parenting anxieties and teenage frustrations in an age of universal surveillance, instant fame, and algorithms determining everyone’s status. It didn’t begin as a book about a quasi-utopia where hunger and murder and war and environmental irresponsibility are distant memories, about who suffers in such a utopia and what they do about it. about social unrest and cultural change. It didn’t begin as a story of young love and embarrassment and hope and defiance.
Okay, well, except for that last bit, I guess. It did begin with hope and defiance.
The book I was trying to write was called Resilience. It was a book about the deep future and epic time, about the strangeness and malleability of human being. It was a book about trying to save the world, and failing, again and again and again.
The human cultural diversity in Earth’s history is immense, but it’s just the beginning: we’ve only begun to find out what human societies could be like. Human cultures are shaped by the environments they’re in, and then they go on to shape those environments, in a chaotic feedback loop — new technologies creating new constraints and desires and social practices, which create new environments. Human societies evolve, and evolution isn’t linear. Evolution isn’t a great chain of being, a Hegelian ladder in which more “advanced” stages replace more “primitive” ones. (Crocodiles aren’t more “primitive” than ostriches: they’re optimized for a different niche.) Evolution is an explosion, life diversifying ever outwards into ever more multitudinous forms, filling all the niches.
So, I thought, I’d write a book about the Dispersal of Humanity: humans (broadly defined… not everything that considers itself human is made of meat) spreading from star to star, and to the spaces between. No faster than light travel: like Earth in the Paleolithic, the Dispersal would take tens of thousands of years for a voyager to cross. Room for vast diversity.
I figured I’d need a protagonist long-lived enough to visit these worlds, and powerful enough to affect them, a protagonist with a problem suitable to this grand scale. This protagonist was Siob the Interpreter: a durable polymorph manufactured and abandoned by the Margin, a hyper technical civilization that became so hungry for knowledge, it turned itself into supercomputing black hole, becoming in the process a rapacious kind of math, instead of people. Traumatized Siob would spent hundreds of millennia trying to nurture civilization after civilization towards resilience, watching them collapse, one by one.
These aren’t spoilers, by the way. None of this is actually in the book.
In the opening of the book I started writing, Siob fails to save another world, then travels for a few centuries to debrief with another quasi-immortal friend, Thavé. I figured the fate of this new world would hang in the balance, too, and Siob and Thavé would come into some kind of epic conflict about it, somehow. I don’t write outlines, so I didn’t know how this would all happen. But I liked what I had so far. Siob was a tragic and compelling protagonist. This whole “can-worlds-survive?” drama seemed like a good angle.
There was one problem, though, about the drama hinging on the fate of this particular planet, and this problem was: who cares?
Everything I had so far was up at this titan-like level of immortal world-manipulators, superhero polymorphs. Who even lived on this planet? Why should we care what happened to them?
Clearly I needed a ground-level view. So I wrote a chapter about an ordinary teenager named Fift, with overprotective parents and teenaged temptations and embarrassing shenanigans. It was super fun to write. I wanted to make it instantly relatable, but also full of that deep cultural dissonance and familiarity-in-estrangement that was the whole point of the project. So: different genders, different family structures, different economics, everything I could think of. I threw in the kitchen sink. it was just an illustration, after all.
But it grew. I started alternating chapters between Fift and Siob. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Siob and Thavé as Oberon and Titania and Puck, up to mighty magic, and Fift and zir friends and family as the human lovers and rude mechanicals, romance and comic relief.
Then a funny thing happened.
The Siob chapters got harder and harder to write. Siob had a serious case of depression, for one thing, and ended up self-buried deep under the polar tundra, brooding over millennia of failure. I dragged Siob out – I am the author, dammit – but Siob really did not want to play ball. Nor did the plot of dueling immortals really work. A macguffin never cohered. The stakes were obscure. The scenes fizzled.
The fact is, I don’t actually know anything about saving worlds. I do know Siob’s feelings of loss and exile and mourning and remembrance (Siob is, of course – this occurred to me much later — the Wandering Jew). But I don’t know how to solve them. I don’t know the answer to Siob’s question.
But Fift? Fift was a joy to write. Fift’s very human struggles — zir frustration with zir nine parents’ meddling and fussing and worrying, zir unease with the gender roles prescribed by zir society, zir restless feeling of being out of place in the world — that was all super close to my heart. To reflect it through a kaleidoscope of deep-future culture weirdness was natural to me: as a Jewish kid growing up in a goyish suburb, a closeted-to-myself bisexual teen terrified by the world’s insistent dictates about what kinds of desires were acceptable, an immigrant for most of my adult life, I come by a sense of anthropological alienation naturally. Everyone around me insisting that certain things are natural and given, when I can easily see how they might be differently arranged…
So I fired Siob. I cut 40,000 words. I made it Fift’s book.
It turns out, to write about the deep future and the marvelous weirdness of human cultures, I don’t need a tour of many planets. I don’t need a supercapable protagonist deliberating Weighty Matters of Destiny. I don’t need a macguffin or a quest.
I don’t need saving the world.
It’s enough to write about trying, really hard, to be a moral person in a complex universe. Trying to love your friends, and gather the courage to be honest with them. Being torn between your heart’s desires and your family’s expectations. Trying to make a difference, not as some kind of superhero or chosen one, but just as an ordinary person on a big, confusing, messy planet…who maybe gets handed a megaphone, and has a shot at being heard, maybe just once, maybe at the most awkward and overwhelming moment possible.
To illuminate how strange and rich the future might be — how it might seem like a utopia from one angle and a dystopia from another, how it might challenge our assumptions about gender and class and family and social order — it’s enough to just write about someone from that future, someone I care about, someone I’m rooting for. Someone like Fift.
The cicadas are single and ready to mingle, as you can see by this trio of them hanging out on our backyard pear tree. There certainly are a lot of them all of a sudden. I hope they find love and that their kids will pop by in 2038. You know, like you do.