More Photos From the New Camera

When I got the new camera, I skipped the kit lens that came with it and bought two specific lenses instead: a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens (which doesn’t zoom), and a 28-300mm f/3.5 – 5.6 zoom lens (which zooms rather a lot) which comes with vibration dampening, so presumably at full zoom you won’t get too much shake.

The pictures yesterday were with the 50mm lens, which I like a lot — it works fantastically in low light, which is great because I dislike using flash and try to avoid it whenever possible. Today I went outside and shot with the zoom, to see how it does. The results are below. All the pictures are zoomed in to some amount or another (the picture of the dude on the bike was at full zoom; I was roughly 800 feet from him when I took the photo).

Not bad at all for a general purpose lens. I suspect I’ll be using the 50mm most of the time when I’m shooting indoor or shooting portraits, but it’s nice to know this lens will fit my needs if I’m going to be in a variety of situations.

Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns

Bebe asks:

My younger child, a sophomore in college, has asked me to use “they” “them” as their preferred pronouns. I live in a very liberal and gender-choice aware New England college town, and I still find this difficult to consistently comply with. Sometimes my English major brain rebels at using plurals for a single person, sometimes I just don’t want to have that conversation with a stranger, especially one who has already stated views that suggest they have no sympathy for the preferences and realities of others. Sometimes I’m just tired and it’s hard to keep it all straight. So, what do you think of gender neutral pronouns? Can you suggest something…better than they, them? Am I being disrespectful of my child by failing to consistently respect and comply with their request? And how would you, or an older, female, Southern version of you respond to the boor who immediately brings up Caitlyn Jenner and insists on calling “him” “Bruce”? And, since you love writing questions, have I used too many “””‘s in this question?

Small things first: The number of quotation marks seems fine to me, and as far as “they” “them” and “their” are concerned, not only is there a long history of their being used as singular pronouns, it’s something that’s rapidly becoming standard usage. When you feel weird about using them for singular usage, just remember a lot of commonly-accepted grammar rules were invented fairly recently as a way for the status-anxious to feel better about how they used the English language. And, you know, that’s just stupid. Good grammar is that which makes the language clear, not that which makes it clear someone else isn’t following arbitrary rules.

As for how I feel about gender-neutral pronouns: I’m for ’em, and specifically I like “they,” “them” and “their.” One, I already know the words, which means that they’re easier for me to incorporate into my daily usage than other gender-neutral pronouns which have been more recently invented or drafted into service; two, I’ve already used “they” “them” and “their” as gender-neutral singular (and plural!) pronouns for years; they’re already part of my personal style guide.

I prefer them, in fact, to “he or she,” both because it’s a less awkward construction and because I know more people now who neither identify as “he” nor “she.” Inasmuch as “he or she” is meant to be an inclusive construction, when you know people who identify as neither (or both, or either on a sliding scale contingent on factors, or whatever), then you realize it’s not actually as inclusive as it’s meant to be. In which case: Hey! “They” offers a really easy solution.

When someone asks you to refer to them by a particular set of pronouns and you’re reluctant to comply, are you being disrespectful? Yup! Self-identity is important, and refusing to accept someone else’s identity for your own reasons will be taken to mean that you dislike or disagree with their choices about who they are. And this is your right, but it means you’re saying that your choices in this regard are more important than the choices of the person who has to live with their own identity every single moment of their lives.

Which is a hell of a thing to say. Are you sure you want to say that? And how would you feel if someone made that choice about you? I identify as male (and cis-gender), and my pronouns are of the “he” set. If someone consistently and purposefully used a set I didn’t identify with, I’d want to know why. And here’s the thing: generally speaking, when someone does misgender me, they’re doing it specifically to be disrespectful. I have assholes out there who use the “she” set of pronouns when referring to me because in their minds, it’s a terrible insult to call a man a woman, and this is a sign of their contempt.

Now, as it happens, I’m not insulted by the “she” set of pronouns being used for me, because I don’t believe being a woman is an inferior state of being. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult. But my point of view on the matter doesn’t change the fact that the misgendering is intended to be disrespectful and an insult. Likewise, the boor calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce” and “him” is almost certainly being disrespectful. Bless their heart.

So, yes: Not using someone’s preferred set of pronouns is disrespectful.

With that said, let me share a personal story here. In the reasonably recent past, a friend of mine who went by one set of pronouns let it be known that from that point forward, they would like to be known by another set. When I read that, I wrote to them that I would be happy to comply, and also, because I had been using a different set of pronouns for them literally all the time I had known them before, it’s possible that from time to time, and despite my intent, I might fuck up and use the previous set. If I did, first, sorry about that and I would try better, and second, please call it out if they saw me do it, because I didn’t want them to think it was intentional, and I wanted them to know it was all right to correct me and to expect an apology. Thus I let them know I respected who they are, that I was also fallible, and that when I failed them, I wanted to do better going forward.

People aren’t perfect. We’ll all screw up from time to time and fail the people we know, the people we like, and the people we love. It’s okay to acknowledge that will happen even as we work to accommodate the people we know, like and love. I do find in my experience that if you acknowledge that you might mess up but will consciously work to improve when you do, you end up messing up less over time, and when you do, people are generally more willing to be understanding.

So: Use people’s preferred pronouns. If you unintentionally screw up, correct yourself, apologize if you feel you should, and try to do better from there on out.

Let me also note that the pronoun thing is one of the best current examples of both the culture and individuals being on a journey, and that even people who mean well, or who want to do what’s best, can still be behind the curve. I’m not where I am with pronouns — and all the aspects of gender and identity that the pronoun issue is semaphore for — because one day I woke up and decided I was going to be cheerfully progressive on the issue. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have argued about what the “real” identity of someone was, and whether it was bounded by their genetics, and whether just because you wanted to use one set of pronouns, that other people should then be obliged to accept your request, and so on.

What’s changed over time with me? Well, some of it is simply knowledge — knowing more people who are trans and genderfluid, and learning more about science and culture, which over time convinced me that a binary understanding of gender is woefully incomplete, and that maybe my own stances should reflect that.

But as much as that — and even more than that — was the question of who I was, and who I wanted to be in respect to others. Simply put, a strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, does not need to demand that other people have to shoehorn their self-identity to someone else’s expectation. A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.

Which is not to say I am a strong or good or kind or righteous person. As noted above, I’m as fallible as the next person, imperfect and otherwise still trundling on the karmic wheel of suffering. But I know who I want to be, and who I want to be is not someone who freaks out other people’s gender identity (or their sexuality, or their cultural identity and so on). So I work on not doing those things.

Am I perfect about this? Nope: See above story about me acknowledging that I would probably screw up a friend’s gender identity. And likewise, people who want to do better can just be starting on this particular path, and will screw up, and fumble and otherwise be imperfect. That’s okay, just as it’s okay for people to get exasperated and frustrated and angry when their identity is imperfectly understood or accepted, even by the people who hope to be good people. I would get exasperated and frustrated and angry too, if I were in their shoes. I wouldn’t feel at all shy about saying so, either.

In any event: Yes, when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them, won’t you? It doesn’t seem too much to ask. It requires nothing from you but practice. In return you acknowledge who they are as human beings. And with that simple recognition of their identity, you, too, acknowledge who you are as a human being. That matters, too.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Quick Tuesday Night Recap, 3/23/16

Because apparently now I’ve made it a thing to write something about the Tuesday night primaries on Wednesday.

1. Hey, hey, Bernie Sanders fans! You had a good night last night, with Sanders thumping Clinton in Utah and Idaho by roughly 80/20 in both states and overall winning more pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton for the first time in a long time (62 to Clinton’s 55). That’s good stuff, and makes the argument that Sanders should stay in it for the long haul.

But is it enough? Fivethirtyeight’s delegate tracker suggested that in order for Sanders to be on track to win the nomination, he needed to win 74 delegates last night; he fell a dozen short of that, even with the comically lopsided caucus wins in Utah and Idaho. Clinton, on the other hand, needed to win 57 to hit her target; she got 55. Which is to say, apparently by fivethirtyeight’s calculus, both Clinton and Sanders failed to hit their marks last night — and Sanders failed more.

(Those are CNN’s current numbers, I should note. Associated Press’ numbers are better for Sanders: 67 to 51. Which means Sanders was seven delegates off his target, while Clinton was six off of hers. Smaller margin, same result.)

This doesn’t mean Sanders is overall in a worse position than he was yesterday, since two big wins can give him momentum in future contests. But it’s a reminder that Sanders at this point not only has to win, and win big, but he has to keep Clinton from hitting her numbers, or at least make sure she misses her numbers by wider margins than he does. He’s got a complicated job, he does.

Personally, I’m interested in seeing how the Washington state caucuses go this Saturday; I think they’ll give some indication on whether Clinton’s going to put this away fairly easy (even if Sanders stays in until June) or whether she’s going to have to scrape out the win one delegate at a time, 2008 Obama-style (or, you know, lose, which could happen, as unlikely as I think that is at this point).

2. Neither Sanders nor Clinton hit their Fivethirtyeight delegate numbers last night, but they can take heart in knowing that on the other side of the fence, neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz got close to their numbers either (and Kasich got a big fat goose egg, so there’s that). Trump, who won Arizona, was off his delegate number by a dozen; Cruz, who slammed Trump in Utah, was off by three times that number.

But then it’s pretty clear the plan now is not for Cruz to get enough delegates to win the nomination outright; it’s to deny Trump enough delegates to do the same. And it worked last night, but the question now is whether it’ll keep working. Utah is filled with LDS church members who for various reasons dislike Trump as a candidate, which made it easier for Cruz to rack up a lopsided victory over Trump (and Kasich, who actually looks to have finished ahead of Trump in Utah).

But Cruz can’t count on that same advantage in Wisconsin, the next GOP state to go to the polls, which is winner-take-all and where Trump holds the lead; he can’t count on it in New York, which is after that, where the most recent poll has Trump up over Cruz by a ridiculous 52 points. There’s not much on the map that looks friendly to Cruz until May, if you ask me, and most of the contests until May are winner-take-all or winner-take-most (Kasich is likely an also-ran in these contests too). Cruz can’t win, but it’s not clear he can make Trump lose, either.

(And then there’s the problem for the GOP that even if Cruz beats Trump, he’s still friggin’ Ted Cruz, who has even less of a chance in the general than Trump.)

Let me put it this way: My political crystal ball is notoriously cloudy, but even so, at this point I would give Bernie Sanders a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than Trump not getting the GOP nomination outright. Both could happen; both seem to me unlikely.

3. Oh, and Jeb Bush has endorsed Ted Cruz. Yeah, that’ll help.

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

The Roman Empire in the New World? That’s the idea of Sidewise Award winner Alan Smale’s The Clash of Eagles trilogy, of which Eagle in Exile is the second book. But in imagining an alternate history, how does one give honor to actual history, and avoid the easy traps of historical fiction? Smale offers up his thoughts.


I was still a recent import to the U.S. when the hoopla surrounding the Columbus quincentenary started up. My own one-man version of the British Invasion was going rather well at the time; what I’d originally thought would be an educational three-year stint in the New World was being overwritten by the strong urge to stick around. Nearly a quarter century later I’m still here, and I’m now an American myself.

From my outsider perspective it was gratifying to see how quickly the simplistic and myth-based story of Columbus I was used to got replaced with a more factual, thoughtful, and nuanced reconsideration of his voyages and impact. I was just beginning to get published as a writer of short fiction at the time, but even then ideas were swirling around my brain. Yet it took another decade and a half, much more writing experience, plus the unanticipated kick-start of reading Charles Mann’s 1491, for my conscious and unconscious minds to get their acts together.

In Clash of Eagles, the Roman Empire never fell. Now it’s the early thirteenth century and a legion under general Gaius Marcellinus is marching west from the Chesapeake Bay towards the great Mississippian city of Cahokia, a thriving community of some 20,000 people. (Cahokia really existed, of course. The Mississippians were mound-builders, and even today it’s fun to stand on top of what we now call Monks Mound, a giant earthwork 100 feet high and 1000 feet across at the base, look out over the surrounding more gently-mounded landscape, and imagine how glorious Cahokia must have been in its heyday…)

And that was the Big Idea behind Clash of Eagles: Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height. Subtext: Invoke a different European invasion of the North American continent, in a different way and at a different time but with fairly similar motives – plunder and personal glory – and explore what happens.

Hold up a mirror to the world we know. Attempt a new perspective on the culture clash between invaders who have “discovered” this great new world of Nova Hesperia, and the people who have been living there all along.

Of course, along the way desperate battles, pathos, and hardship ensue.

As the second volume, Eagle in Exile, begins, Gaius Marcellinus is living in a Cahokia that’s suffered considerable death and destruction due to its Mourning War with the Iroqua of the northeast. Marcellinus has done his level best to help his new Cahokian friends, with – let’s put it kindly – mixed results. And then there’s a coup. Marcellinus and a small band of his Cahokian friends are expelled from Cahokia and have to survive as stateless wanderers on the Mississippi. But, but: in the meantime, the Emperor of Rome has hardly forgotten about Nova Hesperia. More legions are coming, and Cahokia is not ready for them. Unless Marcellinus and his new friends can turn things around, they’re hosed. And there may be an enemy even greater than Imperial Rome on the Hesperian horizon.

This kind of story has antecedents. All stories do. The theme of the helpful and notionally more ‘advanced’ outsider entering and influencing a foreign culture has been explored from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Lest Darkness Fall to Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Which was kind of the point. I wanted to dig into a new version of the “discovery” of the North American continent. But I also wanted to turn the Avatar cliché on its ear, because I’ve never believed it. I’m generally unsatisfied with protagonists who adapt into new and radically different cultures with such speed and ease that they’re indiscriminately slaying members of their old culture by the end of the book (or movie). Perhaps there are exceptions, and even noble ones, but by and large honorable human beings just don’t behave that way.

Marcellinus is an honorable man. He’s hardly blind to Rome’s flaws, but he will live and die a Roman. He tries to convince himself — sometimes on tenuous grounds — that his actions are in Rome’s interests as well as Cahokia’s.

More crucially, Marcellinus has sworn an oath to never take up arms against Rome. This puts him in a bit of a bind. He is no longer a mere soldier. He has made new friends, new family, a new community and new allegiances, and he can hardly abandon Cahokia and the other North American peoples to their fate when his inside knowledge of Rome might be able to help them.

He can’t fight Rome, and yet he can’t not help Cahokia. Really, what’s a guy supposed to do?

So, the Big Idea of Eagle in Exile: wild adventure in an ancient North America, while in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear. With a secondary theme or minor or, hey, side order of: what does an honorable man do in an impossible situation?

With the easy answers ruled out, Marcellinus has to get creative. And after all, it’s not like everyone is just going to do what he says. Cahokia’s chiefs and elders have their own ideas, their own friends and enemies and concerns, and they don’t line up neatly with Marcellinus’s. Marcellinus is quite good at war, but he’ll have to develop a range of other skills to negotiate a treacherous landscape like this. He’ll have to learn fast, think on his feet, and try not to get killed or – given his less than stellar record so far – try not to get anyone else killed either.

I have to say, I’m glad my arrival in North America was calmer than Marcellinus’s. I might not have made it quite as far as I have.


Eagle in Exile: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.