A Splendid Day

(Sometimes this is a blog.)

I had an epiphany this morning as I sat in front of our new flat screen TV (one of us finally got paid, we had a rush of blood to the head, and spent weeks eating bread and dripping), laptop on my knees, gazing raptly at the live coverage of the Tour de France, I finally realised why I’ve started spending Northern summers in New York City: I can follow the Tour LIVE at a reasonable hour and still get some work done. In New York the Tour doesn’t make me lose any sleep. Well, except for that scary, God-hates-all-Aussie-cyclists first day.

Other than any cricket test ever, the Tour de France is my favourite sporting event in the universe. Actually, it has a lot in common with test cricket: a long history, it ebbs and flows over the course of many days, strategy and skill are everything, but then so is luck: one nasty prang or cricket ball to the face and you’re gone.

The Tour is also unlike any other sporting event ever. It’s both a team and an individual sport. A contest that is between nations and also not. It combines endurance with sprinting with strategy. It’s everything. I only wish we had more than two hours of live coverage.

I started following it years ago back home in Sydney when there was only a half hour of coverage daily before the SBS news. That’s when I was first introduced to the dulcet tones of Phil Ligget. Bless him. He’d better not die, the Tour won’t be the same without him.

On my laptop I follow the Tour coverage of the Daily Peloton with its gorgeous Le Tour Delicieux reports by Crazy Jane. We do not share the same taste in men (Lance Armstrong delicious?) but she’s wonderful all the same. Today I emailed back in forth with my friend Gwenda watching in Lexington, Kentucky. She managed to do some work while watching. Not me.

Once the Tour was over for the day, after checking out all the online commentary about the Tour, Tingle Alley and my other favourite blogs, I wrote a thousand words of Magic or Madness II. The first day since I started that I’ve made my quota. This called for a major celebration. So Scott, who’d written 2,500 words (he doesn’t follow the Tour, okay?), said he’d watch my favourite movie of all time with me: Out of the Past.

He loved it and agreed with me about the superlative performances of Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Paul Valentine, and Dickie Moore (in that order). We’d just seen Murder My Sweet and the contrast in acting styles between the two films was, well, stark. Felt like they’d been made twenty years apart, not two.

Every film noir has at least one plot point that makes no sense, for Scott it was how Jeff knew where to find Cathy in San Francisco. After a couple of drinks at one of our favourite Italian wine bars, where we learned the origin of the Bellini (a World’s Fair in Venice made with seasonal white peaches), Scott decided not to worry about it. We concentrated on the dialogue, rejoicing in the screenplay by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) from his own novel, with additional writing by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain:

“I often wondered what happened to him, then one day I’m breezing through here and there’s his name up on the sign.”

“It’s a small world.”

“Yeah, or a big sign.”

Sigh. Wish I could write dialogue like that.

We decided to go see a late session of Spiderman 2, bought two of the last tickets for the 10:30 show, and only then noticed the queue to get into the cinema curving around the block. We sold the tickets, then strolled home, enjoying the steamy weather, talking about Out of the Past (I hadn’t remembered it being so dirty), looking forward to the Liberty game tomorrow with our friend Chris who doesn’t even like basketball (he was only convinced he might enjoy it when I told him Joan Jett sits opposite us).

We got home to discover that Scott’s website is now up and running, thanks to the amazing efforts of Deb Biancotti. Looking good too. Scott’s already gotten his first fan mail to his brand new email address, from an actual member of the young adult target audience. Very exciting. The deluge next (we hope).

In the morning there’ll be more Tour de France and with luck another thousand words, I’ll get to hang out with Chris, and hopefully the Liberty will win. Another splendid day.

New York City, 5 July 2004

This is not a blog

This is Not a Blog

Nor is it a pipe.

I ran into an aquaintance recently who told me how much they enjoy my blog—except for one thing: I don’t update it anywhere near frequently enough.
I thanked them for the compliment—every writer longs to be told they’re being read—and then set them straight on the blog thing, which may not have been such a good idea because who adores a pedant? I don’t know if they’ll continue to read these humble musings. Nevertheless . . .

This is not a blog.

The blog is a form that doesn’t suit me. I’m not interested in having to have special software to write my musings. And I’m allergic to diaries. Not other people’s diaries, those can be fun. I read quite a few blogs and journals regularly: the blogs of my friends Chris, Gwenda, John, Lawrence and Nalo so I can keep up with their lives; bookslut and Moorish Girl for publishing news; pseudopodium (which was Bellona Times. I’m still sad Ray changed the name), Making Light and Melymbrosia cause they’re all such polymaths. I’m just allergic to my own diary.

I kept one from the time I was eleven till, um, considerably older than eleven. It was an account of what I did and saw and thought and it is the most boring thing I have ever written. Mindnumbingly so! Except for the embarassing bits, which are kind of compelling in the same way that a train wreck or hideous skin diseases can be compelling. Not something to be inflicted on anyone else ever.

It’s also one of the most poorly written monstrosities I’ve created and, trust me, I’ve written some really, really, shockingly unreadable crap in my time. I started writing stories and "poems" shortly after learning the alphabet. I didn’t produce anything approaching good until I was in my thirties. That’s almost three decades of dreck. And some of the diary was written scarily recently. There was no way I was ever going to inflict a Justine blog on the universe.

These musings began just over a year ago when I found out that The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction had been shortlisted for a Hugo Award. After recovering from my complete and utter shock (okay, I never quite recovered: I still wear my little gold Hugo pin to bed at night neatly pinned to my pyjamas), I visited the official site only to discover that I was the only nominee without a website. Why would anyone vote for my obscure university press book if they had no idea who I was or how to find said obscure book? The humiliation of garnering fewer votes than No Award stared me in the face.

I panicked, begged my friend Deb Biancotti to design me a site and started hurriedly throwing a bio and list of publications and everything else she suggested together. Within seconds Deb came up with the design you’re looking at right now. Isn’t it great?

But it wasn’t exactly gripping. Bios, lists of publications, excerpts from reviews only go so far. How was I going to give those Hugo voters the incentive to nudge me ahead of No Award? I visited lots and lots of writer websites and quickly noticed that sites with interesting essays about writing, publishing, and having once been a mormon were by far the most compelling (in a non-trainwreck way).

Deb added a section called Musings, Rants and Essays which I filled with stuff I’d already written on Buffy, researching science fiction, science fiction in New York City, Carol Emshwiller and Ursula Le Guin at WisCon, and romantic jetlag. Instant content, which then sat there for weeks and weeks and weeks. I thought about adding some of my more scholarly essays but, bleah, too boring. Then one night I went to a great reading at KGB and decided to write about it. I wrote, rewrote, read it to Scott, rewrote again and, hey presto! The musings in their current form were born.

Shortly afterwards I added a second one about having to wake up way too early. Suddenly everything looked musable. I’d be telling Scott a story from when I was a kid and be thinking, Hey, this could be a musing. Everything I did and everywhere I went gave me ideas: about the New York Liberty, handing out voter registration cards, why chewing gum is such a bad idea (still haven’t finished that one—too much to say), the differences between Sydney and New York City. It was endless.

However, I write for a living, and I don’t get paid to muse. Early on to keep things under control I decided to aim for a musing once a week and if I didn’t manage that, not to sweat it. I don’t, which keeps the musings fun and relaxing; something cool to do when the real paid writing isn’t flowing so well. I write musings when I feel like it and when I don’t, I don’t.

They take anything from an hour, to days, to weeks to write. A blog is all about momentary writing. My musings are slower and way less spontaneous. I have a folder full of dozens of unfinished ones, including a musing on being Australian that I started last June and may never finish (too hard).

Writing these mini- and not-so-mini essays has forced me to shape my thoughts on various topics and to learn a whole new non-fiction genre. A genre I very much enjoy writing, unlike, say, the kind of non-fiction I wrote in my previous life as an academic where every sentence had to have a vast array of duly quoted and footnoted supporting evidence as well as having to prepare for every possible counter argument. Uggh.

This is my fortieth musing written just over a year after the first one. So I’m not making my musing-a-week goal, but I’m not disgracing myself either. I promise this’ll be the only musing ever about writing musings.

New York City, 20 June 2004

PS At the Hugos last year my book garnered more votes than No Award (coming in fourth Battle got 137, No Award only managed 25). I owe it all to this website. Thank you, Deb.

Why Do You Go to So Many of Those Convention Thingies?

It’s a less than three days until the Memorial Day weekend, so me and Scott, we’re all set to head off to WisCon, the greatest convention in the known universe. We’ve turned down a bunch of invites here in Manhattan and our explanation for saying no has, as usual, raised eyebrows. Most of our NYC friends aren’t part of the sf or publishing world and some are puzzled by our disappearing periodically to attend conventions. Disappearing to Sydney for months and years at a time they understand (sort of—do New Yorkers ever really understand people who live anywhere but NYC whenever they possibly can?), but sf conventions? In the Midwest? Huh?

The short answer as to why we go to sf conventions in general and Wiscon in particular is:

a) to socialise

b) to sell books and thus have money to pay rent, eat food and go to sf conventions

The long answer:

The sf community is huge and widespread, conventions are the best way to catch up with our sf friends. Yup, it’s true, cons are an excuse to hang out and party. There are parties every night so—unless you’re stupid enough to host one of them—you don’t have to pay for a drink or (it being Wisconsin) for cheese all weekend long. Free booze! Free cheese! Is this heaven? I now have many close, close friends I only see for four or five days a year (tops) and who seem to live on a booze and cheese-only diet (extreme Atkins) which is really weird if you think about it too much (the only seeing each other a few days a year, not the cheese and booze).

WisCon is like smart camp for grownups. You end up in the most amazing conversations about airships and cricket and Elvis and everything else that is good and wise, just standing in the queue for the toilet. WisCon is how I always imagined university would be (but wasn’t). Smart people arguing about smart things and not ever trying to hide how smart they are. There’s no anti-intellectualism at WisCon.

The smart camp activities, other than cheese and booze consumption and conversations while waiting to pee, are all part of the programming. I have to confess that WisCon is one of the few cons where I actually attend programming. For the uninitiated programming at an sf convention typically consists of discussion panels where a number of people sit behind a table on a podium and pontificate for an hour (or in the case of WisCon approx. 75 minutes) on a set topic with interruptions for questions from the audience.

Sitting in the audience for a bad panel is worse than being forced to watch the cast of Neighbours performing an opera by Phillip Glass. But shithouse panels tend to be few and far between at WisCon. Dunno why. Could it be the high quality of people who attend? (Truly you need exceptionally high intelligence and resourcefulness just to be able to successfully complete and submit the signup form.) Or perhaps it’s the incredible amount of work and effort that goes into putting the programming together? Or could it be the overconsumption of booze and cheese making everything seem more amazing than it is?

Being on a panel is way more fun than being in the audience for one. I adore those glorious minutes sitting up on a podium when it’s my job to rant. Yay! I enjoy it so much that I have taken to volunteering to moderate because it’s unhealthy how much I like talking up a storm on panels. I’m afraid I’ll go mad with the power and become a politician or something. Moderating is the only way I can control myself and let the others get a word in edgewise.

Of course, panels aren’t just fun, they’re also business. For writers who have the gift of the gab they’re a superb way of convincing people who haven’t read you that they really really should and preferably with a brand new copy of your book that they’ve just purchased in the dealers’ room. I’ve seen writers perform so well that suddenly all their books are sold out, not just at the con, but at every nearby book shop. Before a panel there were plenty of copies. Afterwards: not one. (Sadly, there are also writers who have the opposite effect, but of that the less said the better. Never do a panel when you’re in a filthy mood.)

Then there’s the readings: where writers read from their work in yet another effort to get the punters to buy books. Most reading streams at conventions are programmed last and consist of writers being put on wherever there’s a gap in their programme. This leads to someone reading a 60-page Elvish wedding scene from their large fantasy epic, even though that means they steal a whole chunk of time from the other two readers in their session who must then cut in half their dark and dirty sexual encounter between a cyborg warrior and a human munitions worker, and their slipstream reworking of The Idiot in first person and present tense set amongst a marauding zombie tribe. You’ll be surprised at how much that scenario doesn’t work for the audience.

It’s how it used to be done at WisCon until in a fit of insanity Scott and me took over. That’s right, we both love WisCon so much we’ve gotten involved helping run it (which I recommend to no one—just kidding). We will make the readings work, we told ourselves. We will make them perfect! We will make all of the writers happy! All of the time! Only to discover that it’s bloody hard work and not the best way to win friends and influence people. Apparently no one can make all the writers happy for even .0000000000000004 of a nanosecond. But, hey, we’re stubborn, one day it will work and then we’ll hand it over to someone else.

It’s definitely better than it used to be. The simple step of encouraging writers to read with writer friends and having a common theme has improved things out of sight. So has our friendly advice. Here’s Scott’s version that we sent to the readers this year:

Gentle WisCon Readers,

This is a more general email, one with a strident and hortatory tone. Gird yourself, and be assured that this missive is based on a wealth of past experiences, and contains no exaggerations. Reading and carefully digesting it will help the reading sessions go smoothly and fairly. You owe it to your reading mates and audience to do so.

1. Reading sessions are 75 minutes long. There are (generally) four readers per session.

2. Does this mean every reader gets 75/4 = 18.75 minutes? GOOD GODDESS, NO! Assume that the session will start five minutes late, and that five minutes will be consumed between each pair of readers by applause, chair shuffling, hemming and hawing. Because that ‘s the way it always happens.

3. Does this mean every reader gets to read for roughly 14 minutes? NO AGAIN! You have just under 14 minutes for EVERYTHING: introducing yourself, waving your book around, making jokes, plot synopses, finding your place, more hemming and hawing . . .

4. So BEFORE you get to Wiscon, carefully rehearse any preamble you intend to make about yourself, your career, what ‘s been going on in your story up to the point you ‘re reading from. (We’ve seen people do this for TEN WHOLE MINUTES before they actually start reading! This is not professional. It does not sell books. It wastes time. Rehearse and minimize.)

5. Even with all these preparations, do not assume that you can have the couch for more than 13 minutes (that ‘s right, another minute was lost as more people came in). That means ROUGHLY 1800 words, or 6-7 pages. But no formula is a substitute for timing yourself reading out loud, very slowly, all introductions included. Thirteen minutes, we say again.

6. Some of you will note that there is a fifteen-minute break between sessions. Can you use this “free” time to read more, extra, better? NO! THAT WOULD BE WRONG! This is time people need to wander around, invariably chatting to each other before getting to their next session. It is time needed for the next reading audience to trickle in and feel that they are in the right place. Reading during this time is in fact STEALING time from other sessions, into which your no-doubt rapt audience will blunder late and noisy. It may feel like a victimless crime, but it is a dreadful thing to do.

We apologize for the tone and capitalized words herein. If we have been rude, it is only to protect those of you who may be altogether too polite. And we ‘re sure you’ll all have huge audiences and great readings.

Scott & Justine

The other glorious features of WisCon are Ellen Klages and her Tiptree Auction Spectacular: Best Auction Mistress Ever. And—believe it or not—the guest of honour speeches, which are almost always amazing. They make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you start running bake sales and plotting world domination. They’re dangerous.

So that, my dear non-sf friends, is why we’re going to WisCon and why we go to sf conventions.

New York City, 25 May 2004

The Writing Life

Like many writers, I’m fascinated by natter about writing and publishing. Whenever I’m online I check out bookslut and a large smattering of writers’ and editors’ blogs, curious to know who’s being published or not published by whom, how big other writers’ advances are, and what the latest Martin Amis gossip is (scroll down—got to love the London publishing scene).

The internet overflows with such talk. There’s a great deal of angst-ridden discussion about who can call themselves a writer. Do you have to be published to qualify? And if so, what kind of published? Do short stories and poems count or does it have to be a book? Do they have to be professional publications? If you’re paid only ten dollars is that a professional publication? And if only books count, is being self-published okay? Or does it have to be a proper publishing house? What is a proper publishing house?

I must feel some of that angst, since I get miffed when people ask what I do and I say, “I am a writer”, and they respond, “Oh really? How wonderful. Have you published anything yet?”

I’ve still not figured out how to respond to this query. Clearly they don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t help wondering if I’d told them I was a plumber would their first question be: “Have you fixed anything yet?”

Of course, there are many fabulous writers who never published a word when they were alive (Franz Kafka, anyone?) and one of the best writers I know, whose work I’ve been reading and admiring since we were both in high school, has never been published. However, that question “What do you do?” is usually about what you do for a living, how you make money. It’s not a discussion of hobbies, of dreams and aspirations, but of what you do in the here and now to earn a crust.

An even more vexing topic to many writers is the centuries-old discussion about the current dreadful state of publishing (too many books being published, fabulous writers languishing out of print or unpublished while crap like <insert name of bestselling writer you hate most here> is published and sold by the truckload), which has been brought on by the internet/the consolidation of publishing companies/Rupert Murdoch/the drop in numbers of people who read/changes in tax laws/global warming/Satan.

A few days ago an article on Salon.com by “Jane Austen Doe” appeared that touched on many of these topics. The article generated a frenzy of discussion in places like John Scalzi’s Whatever and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light (two of my favourite blogs in the blogverse). Most of the talk (some examples here) concerned the sheer hubris of this pseudonymous writer despairing that none of her subsequent advances came close to matching her first of US$150,000. Most advances are considerably smaller—slice off one of those zeros and you’re somewhat closer to the average advance. Writers have been known to forego advances altogether just to get their babies into print.

It’s a subject we writers are somewhat touchy about. I can’t think of a writer I know who doesn’t dream of such an advance, and not just because of the money (though, hey, money good), but because an advance that big means the publisher is likely to spend still more money actually promoting the book, rather than sending it out into the cold, cruel world with nary so much as a tiny ad in an obscure-but-related-to-topic-of-said-book trade magazine.

A big advance can mean more reviews, placement in dumps at the front of book shops, appearances on radio and television and, with luck, heaps more sales. (Of course, mountains of publicity doesn’t necessarily a hit make: Jayson Blair’s book, anyone? Word of mouth is always the best way to sell tonnes of books. The question is how to get those mouths flapping.)

What struck me most about the article, though, was the author’s extreme romanticism about writing. “Jane Austen Doe” tells the story of someone with great expectations about the life of the writer who is shocked by the cruel realities of the market place. She’s not alone.

Most people I talk to about writing who aren’t in publishing or writers themselves (or living with one) share JAD’s romanticism. Once I’ve established that I am indeed published, they look at me wistfully and say, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” Their eyes gleam as they imagine their writer’s life: lying on a beach, laptop resting on their knees, tapping out those lucrative, brilliant words while they occasionally sip at a mini-umbrella-festooned cocktail.

This vision bears no resemblance to my life or the life of any writers I know (and I know way too many). For starters laptops and the outdoors don’t mix: the glare means you can barely see the screen, and sand in the hard drive—not pretty. Many people seem to think writers are richer, more famous, and more glamorous than plumbers, and they’re wrong on every count.

The majority of the published writers I know also have a day job. Most because they can’t afford not to, some because they can’t function without seeing real live human beings several days a week. Those that don’t, like myself, live in terror of the day when their luck runs out and they’ll have to go back to the nine to five (or more) life.

Like “Jane Austen Doe” I love to write (not quite as much as I love reading or sleeping, but it’s at least top twenty in my list of favoured activities). I’m saddened that the kind of books I most enjoy writing (big, fat, detailed, bloody historicals set in twelfth-century Cambodia) are unlikely to pay enough to keep me alive (apparently there’s not a huge audience for that sort of thing. Who knew?).

So, following the example of other writers I know who live by the keyboard alone, I’ve been learning to write in a wide variety of modes and genres. I’m working on a few different non-fiction book proposals about . . . actually, not telling—I’m not having you lot stealing my ideas. I just bet you’ve already run off to start your own big, fat, detailed, bloody historical set in twelfth-century Cambodia. Stop it. Right now.

My first novel, Magic or Madness, comes out next March. If it tanks (knock on wood that it won’t!) I’ll write something else in a different mode in a different genre. If I can’t sell that something else under my own name on account of previous book tanking I’ll sell it under a pseudonym. If that doesn’t work I’ll think of something else and/or get a day job. With luck, one that involves lots of writing.

But in my heart of hearts I imagine my first novel selling in huge numbers, being festooned with prizes and medals, earning the admiration and undying love of all who so much as glance at its glorious and compelling cover. I see my next novel—a big, fat, detailed, bloody historical set in twelfth-century Cambodia—earning a record-breaking advance and immediately being snapped up by Ang Lee to be made into three separate movies, each of which will outgross the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I had the same sad dreams about my first book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction a scholarly tome published by a university press which, to date, has sold just over a thousand copies. (Wesleyan Uni Press, by the way, are thrilled by those numbers and have even given me another contract.) But so far Ang Lee has expressed no interest in the film version.

I, too, have imbibed deeply of the same romanticism about the glamorous writing life as “Jane Austen Doe”. It doesn’t matter how many of the realities of the publishing industry I’m familiar with or how long I’ve been familiar with them, a stubborn, really dense part of me expects to get rich at this game some day.

Sydney, 25 March 2004

Jetlag and Better Weather

It’s 5:30 AM and it’s Sydney and the weather is better right now where I am than where I was before I got on the plane (two big planes: five & a half hours big, and fifteen hours big). There, New York City (where I was before the planes) it’s 1:30PM and three degrees celsius (fahrenheit translation: just above freezing, you know, cold). Here in Annandale, in Sydney (home) I’m in my pjs (sushi ones, cotton) and there’s no steam pipes making strange noises and overheating the house. Here it’s twenty celsius (fahrenheit translation: warmish, especially compared to NYC).

My head is fuzzy.

We were in economy sitting in narrow little seats that tilt back only slightly. Hands in lap, head back, eyes closed, I’d sleep for whole minutes at a time, then wake to the joy of discovering I was a whole five minutes closer to Sydney. I tried to watch the movies, but the sound through the headphones made me grind my teeth. I watched fragments with a sound track of the plane’s engines and a baby crying and flight attendants offering me drinks and stale turkey sandwiches. “Water, please. No, thank you.” I kept hoping Clive Owen, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Angelina Jolie would blow up, but only Jolie did.

I think the fuzziness in my head started in the airport at San Francisco in between the five-and-a-half-hour plane and the fifteen-hour one. A grey wooliness started creeping into my thoughts, slowing my tongue down. I read a lot, but now, sitting on the couch in Sydney, I find I can’t remember anything I read. Except something about Zora Neale Hurston and a town in Texas (or was it Florida?).

As I write this I’ve been watching the back yard slowly get brighter. The sky behind the ferns and gums and bottlebrush has gone from near black to midnight blue to pale grey. The birds called to each other through every change, sounding nothing like the birds in San Miguel. Now the dawn is over, but the sky is still pale grey. Overcast, no blue skies, no internal-clock-resetting sunlight. Yay.

Last night, Sydney time, I went to bed at 10PM proud of myself for staying awake so long. We’d arrived at 7:30AM. I lay there, listening to the faint sound of the television in the next room, the louder whine of a mosquito. I didn’t hear traffic or sirens or fireworks. I thought about reading, then I thought about writing. I fell asleep. I woke up and wondered why Aunty Jack always had her/his hair in curlers. How would you put them in with boxing gloves on? I fell asleep again.

At 4AM I wrote a list of everything I have to do in the next few weeks. It wasn’t very long:

  • do rewrites
  • email people

At the time I had a niggling suspicion I was forgetting something. Having reread it I find I am correct. There are zillions of other things I am supposed to do in the next few weeks. I do not remember what any of them are. Also, what rewrites?

I begin a list of people to email. It isn’t very long either. My sister, my mother and my father’s names are on it. They already know I’m here. We had breakfast together. Scott and I gave them presents.

Now it’s 7AM and my eyelids have decided to stop fighting gravity. The fuzziness has eaten my head.

Sydney, 15 March 2004

On Punctuation

I was never taught how to punctuate. I dimly remember being told some time (in First Grade maybe?) that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, but after that nada. No helpful hints about punctuation in primary school or high school or university. I did encounter style manuals in uni but skipped past the fifty-page sections on uses of the semi-colon and went straight to the how to do footnotes and bibliographies.

Shortly after Scott read my first story, he shared his horror at my punctuation skills, or lack thereof. I wasn’t as taken aback as I would’ve been two years earlier, but since I had foolishly taken to hanging out with lots of writers, and, even dumber, started showing them my feeble efforts, I’d been getting an earful about the infelicities of my punctuation. (Thanks Karen, Kelly, and especially Richard, who actually examined my laptop to check whether there was a functioning comma key.)

I admit I’d been surprised by their horror at my commas. At that stage I was way educated—twelve years of primary and secondary plus two university degrees. No one had ever told me I couldn’t punctuate before. At first, I figured it must be a USA versus Australia thing. They spelled differently to me; it figured they’d punctuate differently too. But then I got similar comments from some Australian and Canadian professional writer and editor friends. It appeared that I really did have comma issues, though it also became clear that everyone had a different solution in mind.

Scott was the one to sit me down and explain how it works (or, at least, how it works with English in the USA). I learned the difference between an en-dash (-) and an em-dash (—), the uses of the semi-colon and suspended hyphenation, and above all else how to distinguish a run-on sentence in desperate need of that capital letter and full stop from a long, elegaic sentence a la Jane Austen or Dorothy Dunnett.

He announced recently that he’d had little hope at first, thinking I was simply retarded when it came to punctuation (as many people, including many excellent writers whom I won’t embarrass by naming, are), and was much relieved to discover that I was, in fact, educable.

Scott used a red pen and lots of withering sarcasm. I’m not sure it’s a method I’d recommend, as it does lead to many tears, but he has managed to steer me along an unbelievably steep punctuation learning curve. I figure I’m about halfway there. Possibly. (But feel free to email me drawing my attention to any punctuating infelicities you may notice.)

Of course, a large part of my becoming a better punctuater (or should I say less bad?) was actually re-reading what I wrote more than once or twice. I used to think the aim was to get published as quickly as possible, so why waste time rewriting? The concept of polishing, multiple rewritings, and not attempting publication until what I’d written was good as I could make it, had escaped me for many years (and, oddly, so too did publication).

I have discovered that my lack of education on the punctuation front is by no means unique, and my whole punctuation ordeal—er, wonderful learning experience—has left me wondering why punctuation isn’t taught anywhere except on the job as a copy editor or proof reader. Why don’t schools (at any level) push beyond capital letter, full stop? Why for that matter have schools stopped teaching grammar? The two are inextricably linked—if you don’t know where the clause boundary is how are you going to know where to put the comma?

If any of my gentle readers have any answers to this quandry or brilliant campaign suggestions for improving punctuation everywhere, let me know. It’s time we made the world a safer, better-punctuated place.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 February 2004

A Beginner’s Guide to Cricket

People from non-cricketing countries (poor, sad souls) often ask me to explain cricket to them. Here in San Miguel I have lost count of how many times I’ve sat at a bar using glasses for batsmen and coasters for the fielders. It seems to me more than past time to set my simple principles of cricket down for the greater world to enjoy. It disturbs me that so many of those sad souls labour under the misapprehension that the blessed game is an arcane and difficult one into whose mysteries you must be initiated from birth, otherwise understanding is impossible.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Cricket is dead easy to understand. Like the world’s greatest board game, Go, the principles are simple, but the variations endless. Anyone can learn to understand, enjoy, and ultimately, love, cricket. Quite simply it is the world’s greatest spectator sport.

Plus you have me, the mistress of easy (er, but not in that sense) to teach you how.

Cricket, of course, is not for everyone. Those readers who have zero interest in spectator sports should stop reading now. Run off to your yoga class, go walk your dog, turn back to that book you were reading. This musing is not for you.

For the rest of you here are the basics of cricket:

Cricket is a team sport. The team which scores the most amount of runs, and gets the other team out, wins. Nothing simpler.

There are two forms of the game:

1) Test cricket—which takes place over five days. Think of it as akin to the novel with all the running dramas, climaxes, anti-climaxes, intrigues and counter-intrigues of that artform. Test cricket is the original and only true form of cricket.

2) Pyjama or One-Day cricket—the shortened form. It is to test cricket as a bad TV advertisment (wheredyagedit?) is to a superb film. Loud, noisy, predictable, wholly lacking in subtlety and eye-jarringly colourful. To be watched only if there is no test cricket available.

For obvious reasons, I will largely be discussing test cricket.

Cricket is played on an oval. A large expanse of green grass usually surrounded by a white picket fence. The grass is kept at a specific height by the groundsman. In the centre of the oval is the cricket pitch (or wicket) which is a strip of paler grass. The wicket (or cricket pitch) is also carefully presided over by the groundsman, but once the game begins grass is left to grow and the wicket to deteriorate. Thus the conditions for playing change over the five days of a test. The condition of the oval and pitch has a large effect on whether the cricket played on it will be high or low-scoring. Some afficionados argue that the groundsman is the most important person in cricket. I think this is going a tad too far.

At either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) are the stumps (or wicket). The stumps are a wooden constuction of three stakes (Buffy would have plenty of weapons available should she have to deal with a nest of vampires while attending a cricket match) impaled in the ground, with two smaller pieces of wood, known as the bails, balanced on top. In front of these stumps (or wicket) at either end is a white painted line which marks the crease.

Two teams of twelve people play (though the position of the twelfth man is that of gofer. They don’t actually play unless one of the fielders needs to leave the oval for a short amount of time). The two teams take turns fielding and batting. In test cricket each team has two innings. In pyjama (or one-day) cricket they have one innings each.

The team batting has the job of protecting the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs. Two batsmen at a time are on the field (unless one of the batsmen is injured in which case they have a runner and there are three batsmen on the field). One batsman is at either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) defending the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs.

Runs are scored by hitting the ball (made of cork covered with red leather) with a cricket bat (traditionally made of willow—thus the expression "the glorious sound of leather on willow" which sound dirty if you’re thinking of a certain character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and running up and down the cricket pitch (or wicket). Although only one batsmen can hit the ball at any one time, both must run and get safely behind their crease. If the ball is hit all the way to the boundary (typically a thick white rope, not the fence) it is deemed to be four runs. If it is hit over the boundary it is six runs. The batsmen need not run for these boundaries.

Once a batsmen has run safely from one end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) to the other they have scored one run for themselves and also for their team. The batsman who is facing the bowling is said to be on strike. You do not have to hit each ball. You do not have to run if you do hit the ball. Hitting the ball to the boundary is the most efficient way of making runs because you accumulate runs faster and you don’t have to exhaust yourself running.

Getting fifty runs is good for an individual batsman, getting one hundred (or a century) is better, and getting more still is even better. The most amount of individual runs ever was 380 scored by the Australian Matthew Hayden. (Update 13 April: it’s now Brian Lara with 400 not out. Woo hoo!) The highest ever career average for a batsman is that of Donald Bradman (also an Australian): 99.94. Of course cricket is a team sport and individual feats and statistics are rarely mentioned and of little importance.

The job of the fielding side is to get the batsmen out and prevent them from scoring runs. This is achieved by standing in positions where the team captain thinks they are most likely to get a catch or prevent runs. Only one of the fielders, the wicket keeper, wears gloves to help catch the ball (unlike, say, baseball). The wicket keeper stands behind the stumps (or wicket).

All fielding positions have specific names that indicate their relationship to the batsmen on strike. A deep position is one that is a long way from the batsman and closer to the boundary. A short or silly position is one that is closer to the batsman. Leg or on side positions are closer to the back of the batsman’s legs. Off side positions are closer to the front of the batsman.

When a batsmen gets out they leave the field and the next batsman in the batting order comes out to replace them. The batting order usually runs from best batsmen to worst (the exception being the nightwatchman). There are cricketers who are specialist bowlers, cricketers who are specialist batsmen, as well as that rare beast, the all-rounder, who is good at both. Regardless of batting ability every one on the team (save the twelfth man) must bat.

There must be two batsmen for play to continue so once the tenth batsman is out the innings is over.

The Play

The game begins when the captain of each side walks out on to the oval and a coin is tossed. The winner of the toss decides whether they want to bat or field first. Their decision is based on the weather, the conditions of the pitch, what they know of their opponents and of their own team.

Test cricket play typically commences at 11AM and continues until 6PM, with scheduled breaks for tea and lunch and unsceduled breaks for drinks. It continues for five days, or less, if there is a result sooner.

Results of a test match are win—your team scores more than theirs and gets theirs all out; lose—your team scores less than theirs and is all out; draw or no result—one team scores more than the other team but fails to get them all out; tie—both teams get the exact same score and are all out (exceptionally rare—this has happened only twice in test cricket history).

Once the matter of who bats first has been decided, the two umpires, the fielding team and the two opening batsmen (or openers) walk out onto the oval. The batsmen take up their positions in front of the two sets of stumps.

Opening batsman is a specialist batting position given to the two batsman on the team who are good at accumulating runs, not prone to throwing their wickets away, and work well together. It is essential that the openers have a mutual understanding of when to run and even more importantly when not to run.

At the same time, the fielders take up their positions: the wicket keeper behind the stumps (or wicket) of the batsman who bats first, the opening bowler at the other end of the cricket pitch, and the rest of the fielders in positions determined by the captain and the bowler which they deem to be best for getting this particular batsmen out and preventing them from scoring too many runs.

Some of the factors they take into account when determining these field placings are: whether the batsman is right or left handed, whether the batsman is known to be fond of particular strokes, how the batsman proceeds to bat in this particular innings, and how fast or slow the wicket (cricket pitch) is.

The opening bowler, usually a fast bowler (or quick), bowls an over from one end of the oval. Usually the two ends are named for their geographical locations. At the S. C. G. (Sydney Cricket Ground) there is the Paddington end and the Randwick (or University of New South Wales) end. One of the ends at the ‘Gabba (the major cricket ground in Brisbane) is known as the Vulture St end which has always seemed remarkably ominous to me.

An over consists of six legitmate bowls. If the bowler bowls a ball the umpires deem to be illegitimate (a wide or a no ball) the bowler must bowl another ball and the over ends up consisting of more than six balls (and thus more than six opportunities to score runs for the batsmen). Some overs wind up being 17 or 18 balls long, but this is uncommon. Each time there is an illegitmate delivery the batting team is given an extra run. These are called sundries.

If the batsman hits the ball and gets a run, the two batsmen change ends and the bowler finds themselves having to reset the field (change the positions of all the fielders) to accommodate the new batsman. If each ball results in a single run the batsmen will change end six times, resulting in frequent changeovers of the field.

After the first over is finished a second bowler bowls an over from the other end. At the completion of that over the ends change again and the first bowler bowls another over. The two bowlers thus rotate the bowling until they begin to tire, or bowl badly, or annoy the captain, who replaces them with a different bowler. A bowler can only be replaced once they have completed an over.

In order for a batsman to get out they must be dismissed in one of the following ways:

Bowled. The bowler bowls a ball which goes past the batsman and hits the stumps (or wicket), dislodging the bails. Common.

Caught. The batsmen hits the ball (or it comes off their gloves) into the air and a fielder catches it before it hits the ground. Common.

Handled Ball
. The batsmen picks up the ball. Uncommon.

Hit Ball Twice
. The batsmen hits the ball, it doesn’t go anywhere, so they take a second swipe at it. Uncommon.

Hit Wicket. The batsmen hits their own stumps (or wicket) dislodging the bails. Uncommon.

Leg Before Wicket
. The batsmen does not offer a stroke to a ball that would have hit their stumps were their pads not in the way. Common.

Obstructed Field
. The batsman deliberately tries to prevent a fielder either taking a catch or throwing down the stumps. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

Run Out. The batsman fails to make it back behind the crease before the opposing side has dislodged the bails with the cricket ball, either thrown or held in the hand. Common.

Stumped. The batsman steps out of their crease to strike the ball, misses, and before they can step back the wicket keeper dislodges the bails with cricket ball in hand. Common.

Timed Out. The batsman fails to come out to bat within three minutes of the fall of wicket. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

In addition to being caught, bowled or any of the other possibilities listed above there must also be an appeal. An appeal consists of the fielding team leaping in the air screaming "howzat?" and staring at the umpires with a fierce expression that generally means "you’d have to be barking mad not to give the bastard out". If the umpire agrees they will raise their index finger. If they disagree they will do nothing, or shake their head. Umpires are universally known not to be intimidated by the antics of the fielding team and their decisions are always just and fair. Particularly those of Steve Bucknor.

Once a batsman is given out by the umpire they slowly trudge off the field looking miserable (particulary if they have scored a duck [no runs]). Batsmen never look happy getting out even if they have scored a double century. Someone would say particularly if they have scored a double century, because they were deprived of the chance to knock over the world record for number of runs scored. Though of course cricket is all about the team and not about individual statistics.

The score is represented thus: number of wickets taken followed by a forward slash, followed by the number of runs scored. If one wicket has been taken and 23 runs scored the score looks like this: 1/23 which is read as "one for twenty three" (except in England where for some bizarre reason they do it like this: 23/1 or twenty-three for one). As more runs are scored and more wickets taken the score changes. However you will never see 10/ because once ten wickets are taken the innings is over.

The next batsman then comes out, jogging up and down on the spot and generally giving the impression of being raring to go and ready to knock every delivery far, far out of the ground. That is if the next batsman is still an actual batsman and not a bowler masquerading as a batsman. In that case they will walk out somewhat unsteadily holding the bat as if they aren’t quite sure what it’s for or how to hold it. They will stand at the crease and stare up the other end at the fast bowler who is hurtling towards them faster than Phar Lap and they will valiantly try not to panic and run.

Such a batsman is known as a tailender. My favourite spectacle in cricket is when there is only one genuine batsman left and they are in the position of having to stay on strike and thus protect the tailender from getting out and possibly injured (in that order).

Because the strike automatically changes at the end of every over (or every six balls). The real batsman tries to end the over by hitting a single thus ensuring that they keep the strike and the tailender doesn’t have to deal with that scary red thing hurtling towards their body and/or wicket (stumps). This leaves the good batsman in the awful position of sometimes having to resist hitting a boundary for fear of handing the strike over to the incompetent, afraid-of-the-ball, not-quite-sure-which-end-of-the-bat-is-up tailender. Meanwhile the fielding side is doing everything it can to give the tailender the strike so that they can then get them out. Mostly by terrifying the poor bastard into treading on their own wicket. It is most gratifying to watch.

Once the tenth bastman is out the innings ends. The innings total consists of the combined total of all the individual batsman plus all the sundries (illegitimate deliveries) conceded by the bowling side. Let’s say for example that the first side to bat, who we’ll call Australia, score 456 and still aren’t all out. The captain might decide that 456 is a very solid, good, defensible total and declare. A declaration means that the captain has decided to end their team’s innings before they are all out.

The new batting side, let’s call them England, will be aiming to get that much and hopefully two hundred or more besides. So that when Australia bat again in their second and final innings they will have a difficult target to achieve. (Second innings totals are almost always smaller than first innings totals.) If Australia are all out before they reach England’s first innings total then England has won (and pigs would start to fly).

A much more likely result is that England would go out for their first batting innings and tragically (though predictably) make only 123 runs and fall well short of Australia’s first innings total. This means that Australia has a choice: they can now go out to bat and make an even bigger total for England to get in their second innings or they can enforce the follow on. The follow on means that Australia postpones their second batting innings and forces England to bat twice in a row, gambling that they can get England all out before they reach, or get very much further than, the first innings total of 456.

Australia does this and gets England all out for 234. Sadly the two totals 123 + 234 is still less than Australia’s first innings total and England lose by an entire innings and 99 runs. Not an unusual result for either side.

And there you have it. Enough cricket knowledge to allow you to follow a test match without any difficulty. Before long though you’ll find yourself thirsting for more so you can follow the intricacies of the game and not just these bare basics. Don’t despair! Coming soon:

The Slightly More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket. To be followed shortly after by the Moderately More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket, and not long after that, by the Substantially More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket.

San Miguel de Allende, 16 February 2004

More on Why I’m Against Romantic Love

Apparently more words have to be written on this subject. I appear to have been less than clear in my recent anti-romantic love musing. At least that’s the impression I get from the rather, er, heated responses I’ve received. The Being Dumped musing generated the biggest response of any thus far. And the least positive one. Sigh.

First up: the unhappy long-term relationships I was referring to? None of them was your relationship, okay? I didn’t mean any of my friends in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom or the United States (or any other places I’ve momentarily forgotten). I meant other friends who live elsewhere. And I wasn’t referring to your breakup, either. Hence the careful non-specificness of the whole musing. None of my friends have ever had anything but beautiful, peaceful break ups and all their relationships are perfect and will last forever.

Yes, there were some logical disconects in my arguments. I did say incoherent rant, didn’t I?

No, I’m not against love. Just romantic delusional love (which of course none of my friends suffer from).

No, Scott and I are not breaking up. We, just like all our friends, share a perfect relationship that will last forever. Blah blah blah.

One annoymous correspondent wanted to know what the "insane amounts of propaganda [for romantic love] every single day of our lives" was exactly, because they—bless their innocence—have never encountered such in the course of their existence. To which I can only respond: Are you only a day old? Are you insane? Are you blind, deaf and dumb, as well as illiterate? Well, no, not illiterate, are they? Else how would they have been able to write their idiot email to me in the first place?

Where is this propoganda? Romantic love is just about the most common narrative in human culture: boy meets girl. Check out almost any book: I don’t just mean Mills & Boons, have a look at a few textbooks on human reproduction and marvel at the romance of the damsel-in-distress egg and knight-in-shining-armour sperm (thank you, Emily Martin); or any TV program: Where do you start? From "Queer Eye on the Straight Guy", which has to be the most aggressively conservative defense-of-het-romance show I’ve ever seen, to the news (full of crap about celebrity couples, or cute old couples celebrating 175 years of wedded bliss), to any sitcom or drama or cop show ever aired.

This garbage is everywhere you look: video clips, movies, advertising: have shiny, pretty hair/ new car/ new laundry detergent: get girl/boy. Romance propoganda is in almost every song you hear, is the narrative drive of virtually every opera. It comes out of the mouths of your friends and family. Every time you’re asked if you’re seeing someone, every time someone commiserates when you confess your tragic state of singleness, every time someone asks if you think this time it’s the real thing.

All of it is romantic love propoganda. Does that answer your question?

No, I really wasn’t mocking the pain of anyone who’s been dumped. Especially not your pain, honest. I’ve felt that pain. It’s agony. Horrible. I pray never to be dumped again, by friends or lovers. I was just saying as how that pain is made worse by the unrealistic expectations we’re all trained to have about romantic love. How we’re taught to expect romantic relationships to last and last and last. Why can’t we be happy when a relationship lasts, say, five years and most of that time it was pretty good? Why can’t that be considered a success? Why is only forever (or until one of you karks it) a successful relationship?

Someone else asked if I really believe that friendship is as important as a "love relationship". Yeah, I really, really do. In fact, I think the law should be changed everywhere so that it’s possible to enter into a civil union with your best friend, leave all your wordly goods to them, have them make the pulling-the-plug decision. We should all be able to sponsor close friends (thanks, niece Renee, for the suggestion) who want to come live in the same country and vice versa. It should be subject to the same stringent tests that sponsoring a spouse or close relation are currently subject to.

I don’t understand why these things aren’t possible everywhere in the world right now. I don’t understand why we overvalue our "love" relationships and undervalue our friendships.

Stop it, already!

San Miguel de Allende, 27 January 2004

Eight Weeks in San Miguel de Allende

Feels like we’ve been living here for years. San Miguel is every bit as fabulous and addictive as Scott warned me. It’s cured my writer’s block, improved my Spanish, and kept throwing the most amazing people across my path, though none so wonderful as Silvia (the maid at our first rental house) and Alejandra (my Spanish teacher).

Since we arrived on the first of December I’ve written the entire first draft of my first sold novel (crikey!); read a novel in Spanish; discussed local politics (old mayor versus new mayor), Australia/USA and Mexico/USA relations (sadly the Mexico/Australia relations conversation is not a long one) and many other topics with Silvia and Alejandra; and met many writers, layabouts, journalists, cartoonists, teachers, adventurers and travellers (okay, only one cartoonist).

We’ve eaten at almost every restaurant in town: from your friendly hole in the wall to fancy pants high-end, where we’ve consumed sopa azteca, mole, guava mousse, hibisicus quesadillas, jicama, fresh fruit salads, devil eggs, mushrooms in garlic chilli sauce, dry soup, mango tacos, and guacamole and pastries until they’re coming out our ears. We’ve drunk (in order of volume) water (see, parents, we very good), the best tequilas I’ve tasted in my life, margaritas, red wine and piña coladas (yeah, yeah, whatever, but they’re yummy).

We’ve seen the insides of five San Miguel houses: from the two we’re renting here (cheap and small for the first two months; bigger for the last month when the guests arrive: Hey Gwenda! Hey Christopher! Hey Lloyd & Betty!) to a several centuries-old huge dark pile which has a plaque on the outside declaring that it was used during the Inquisition—I’m guessing not for making hibisicus quesadillas. Every one of them gorgeous with high ceilings, lots of light, gardens, patios, roof-top areas for watching the sun set, fountains, and best of all, no firm boundary between inside and outside.

What I love most about the houses here is that from street level you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find inside. All you see is a door and occasional windows in a flat wall, not telling you a thing. In Sydney I can tell from the front of a Newtown terrace or cottage the exact layout inside, how many rooms, where the stairs will be, frequently how it will be decorated. New York City, too, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the outside of an apartment in each particular neighbourhood.

In San Miguel you can find almost anything behind those huge wooden doors with their beautiful brass handles. The five houses all have completely different layouts. I’ve opened the door and stepped into a huge courtyard with balconies from the surrounding rooms looking down. Or a large foyer with places to hang your coats, leave your umbrellas, tether your donkey, and then up an elegant winding staircase to the house proper with its persian carpets and grand piano. Another front door opens onto a hallway with two large guest rooms on either side. At the end of the hallway another door leads to an elaborate garden with a fountain, the rest of the house is on the other side. We peaked through the doorway of one place we pass all the time, only to discover that there’s no house there at all, just a huge garden, with what my Sydney eyes identify as Moreton Bay fig trees (could that be possible?).

We’ve started looking in real estate agent windows here, checking out the prices of houses, but failing a bigtime Hollywood movie option, they’re all out of our reach—not New York City or Sydney out of our reach, but still way too rich for our blood. Looking at houses is a sign of wondering what it would be like to live here for a year or more, not just three months. San Miguel is a sticky place. We keep meeting people who came here on a holiday five, ten, twenty years ago and somehow never quite managed to leave.

I’ve met Italians, English, French, Canadians, Australians, Moroccans and, of course, lots of USians who live here. I’ve heard that as much as ten per cent of the population is foreign born. Many of the Mexican (not to mention some of the foreign) population complain that the foreigners have made the prices of everything go through the roof, especially real estate. Many born-and-bred Sanmiguelenses can no longer afford to live in the centre (this is a sentiment I understand, harbouring similar feelings about North Shore types moving into the Inner West of Sydney). The foreigners have also, and I’m quoting Mexicans here, led to a cleaner town, better restaurants, more active charities, a much better library and the improvement of many other services from the internet to sanitation.

Other than real estate prices, the most common complaint I hear is about how many of the gringos (and it is largely the USians) arrogantly expect everyone to speak English—despite this being Mexico where English is not, in fact, one of the national languages. I have seen a USian woman at the artisan’s market trying to bargain a man down on the price of a small trinket. He was asking about AU50c and she wanted him to drop down to around AU30c (or pretty much free in USian money). She waved her jewel-encrusted hands about, hectoring the poor man in English of which he clearly understood not a word. To be fair, Silvia claims that it’s more tourists who are like that than residents.

I always speak Spanish first, but many times people respond in English and stay in English no matter how long I go on replying in Spanish. Alejandra says it’s because they’re so used to gringos demanding English and not because my Spanish sucks so much they can’t bear to hear me speak it. She is perhaps too kind; I don’t see that the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The other unavoidable horror has been the weather. While New York City’s been tormented by snow, ice storms, and blizzards and the temperature’s dropped to 20 below zero, here in San Miguel we’ve also been suffering colder than usual weather. Several nights it’s gotten below zero (that’s below 32F for the celsius challenged) and there have been days where we had to wear more than a T-shirt and jeans. I have been very good and not entered into any bitter recriminations with Scott about keeping me away from another glorious Sydney summer (not to mention the cricket season). I haven’t even complained during the golden hour when we sit on the roof watching the sunset, with great flocks of birds flying overhead, sipping our beers doused in lime, eating jicama and sweet cheese pastries and I’m shivering despite the extra jumper (sweater, USians) and jacket.

San Miguel de Allende, 26 January 2004

Esteban el Centauro

I just finished reading a novel in Spanish, Esteban el Centauro
by Gilberto Flores Patiño (Atenas, Mexico, 1985). My first
ever. Admittedly it’s a very short novel: only 82 pages, coming
in at around 25,000 words. Barely a novella really. But as someone
who’s only managed to struggle through kid’s picture books, and
short simple stories and poems, it felt like a major achievement.
I read the whole thing through without an English translation by
my side. I read it and I understood it and it made me weep. I cried
and cried and cried and cried. And books hardly ever make me cry.
Except for Wide Sargasso Sea and Bridge to Terebithia
and Pride and Prejudice and In Cold Blood and,
okay, lots of books make me cry. But they’re all really good ones.
(Except for the really crap ones which make me cry for different
reasons.)

Esteban is the perfect book for someone with my level of Spanish who can’t cope with reading badly written exercises for people with my level of Spanish. It’s written from the point of view of a small boy, Esteban, talking to his constant companion, his wooden horse. (Hence the title Esteban the Centaur: half boy, half wooden horse.) There’s lots of first and second person (yay, my favourites). Hardly any subjunctive. Not a lot of new vocab, except for all the stuff to do with horses. And lots of repetition: "Because the sea is very big very big very big. Bigger than anything! It has lots and lots of water".

The clause structure is not complicated either, barely a "which" or a "who" in sight. It’s all this and then this and then this. Open any page and it’s littered with "ands", even more visible in Spanish because "and" is "y". An effect I will attempt to duplicate by using "&" in place of "and":

My mum & her friends & their girlfriends were walking & looking at the sand & they were picking up shells & one woman put a shell to her ear & she said she could hear the sea. Then I thought that the sea was talking & the voice of the sea came out of the shells, because all the señores & señoras & my mum were putting the shells to their ears & they started to laugh & say yes yes yes, I can hear it too. & because no one told me what the sea said, I looked for a shell & I put it to my ear, but I didn’t hear anything, & because they were all saying that they could hear the sea I thought that my shell was no good & I threw it away & looked for another & I still heard nothing & I looked & looked & looked, but none of the shells that I put to my ear had the voice of the sea.

I don’t remember the last time I read a story from a small kid’s point of view that so gorgeously captured the rhythms of a child’s speech, the endless stream of questions: "Who invents the words in dictionaries?" and their view from below—looking up at the grown-ups—trying to parse that strange adult world.

And to help my comprehension, Esteban el Centauro is partly set here in San Miguel. Esteban walks down streets I know, goes to Mama Mia’s looking for his mother, sits in the Jardin, looks at the Parroquia. Esteban’s childish eyes capture, too, some of the complex interractions between the Mexican and gringo inhabitants of this fine city. Something else I’m increasingly familiar with.

I’m not sure there’s another book in Spanish so perfectly designed for me. Following my teacher Alejandra’s suggestion, I tried Aura by Carlos Fuentes which also has the virtue of shortness, but it’s wham bam straight back to adult land: complicated structures, zillions of words I’ve never seen before. I can barely read a clause with even partial understanding. Fortunately my edition’s bilingual so I can cheat.

Still, I read a novel in Spanish! And I will keep trying to read others, the way I keep trying to have conversations with people, even though I stumble over verb conjugations, pronouns, masculine and feminine, and haven’t managed to fully erradicate my lisp. But if people don’t talk too fast or use too many unfamiliar words or phrases, I can understand them. And, on occasion, I can even manage a long conversation about tricky subjects, like the relationship between servants and their employers in San Miguel. I even had a shot at explaining cricket. Not recommended. But then I’ve never managed that successfully in English either. Amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fall apart when confronted with phrases like Hit Wicket and Silly Mid-Off. I shall never understand it.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 January 2004

Writer’s Block

Raymond Chandler would lock himself in a room for four hours every day. In that time he didn’t have to write, but he wasn’t allowed to do anything else. Not write letters, do crossword puzzles, play solitaire, read the newspaper; he could only write. Eventually boredom forced him to it.

A writer friend of mine claims there is no such thing as writer’s block, only writer’s procrastination. "Writer’s block," she claims, "has taken on a kind of mythic status for writers and wannabe writers, and become this curse or disease the hapless writer catches. Crap. It’s laziness pure and simple. Anyone can write any damn time they want to.

"If I’m having difficulty getting going I just type anything at all. It might suck and have nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be writing, but I keep at it, and before too long I’m back on track. Nothing simpler."

Yeah, but what if you start off by typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? What then, eh?

I tend to wander around. Right now I’m sitting in the hallway with my feet in the bedroom and my laptop perched on my knees. I’m supposed to be rewriting, but it hurts my head, and I keep getting stuck. Difficult to see a way to transform the monstrosities sprawled across the screen into elegant, or even, coherent sentences. Easier to write this.

My excuses for not being able to write today are, in order of malign impact: a hangover, jetlag, and having run out of good books to read (necessary to get the creative juices flowing). Also, cricket season is in full swing back home—Steve Waugh’s final test series coming up—and I’m in New York City which is so depressing it dries up all inspiration.

Scott reckons that were we in Sydney, I’d be getting no writing done at all cause I’d be lying on the couch in front of the TV watching the cricket (or we’d be at the SCG if there was a game on). It’s a filthy lie. I’m well able to write and watch cricket and bitch about Keith Stackpole, the world’s most tedious and annoying cricket commentator. All at the same time. If we were at home right now, I’d be writing what I was supposed to be writing.

I never have writer’s block. No matter what I can write. My problem is that while I can always write something, that something is not always what I’m supposed to be writing. These musings are dead easy. No deadlines, no editors to deal with, no pressure, no reviews. And most glorious of all, I can always tinker with them long after they’re "published" online. They’re not frozen on the printed page, all errors intact, until the end of time. Writing the articles, introductions, books that are due, well, dead, maybe, but not easy.

I really don’t understand why it’s so hard. I love writing. Since I was a child I’ve written stories, poems, essays, novels, limericks, the entire contents of a school magazine, anything at all. Once I get going, I’m fine. It’s the hours of staring at a blank screen, getting up and wandering around, tidying up, remembering that we’re out of olive oil and that I should really go buy it now, answering emails, deciding that I haven’t seen so-and-so in ages and must—this very minute—meet them for lunch, reading the Sydney Morning Herald online to laugh at the latest epic Paul Roebuck account of the cricket: "a large crowd sat in the shelter of Moreton Bay figs and children played their games as their seniors batted and bowled, ghostly figures settling ancient scores", opening up a different document and working on it instead of the thing that is becoming more and more urgent as the minutes, hours, days tick by. Then when it becomes really, truly, terrifyingly urgent, then all of a sudden I can write. Like the wind. And most perverse of all, I enjoy it.

So why do I go through this performance every time? Why can’t I just sit and write. I love writing. Why do I have to trick myself into it? Offer myself rewards and punishment? Why can’t I just write what I’m supposed to, when I’m supposed to, and thus have more time to do it absolutely right? As Justice Brandeis, or Aldous Huxley, or someone, once said "There is no good writing, only good rewriting". Or as Sylvia Kelso says "You can’t edit nothing, but you can edit shit".

Here in San Miguel de Allende after the first run-around-and-have-lots-of-fun week I’ve been writing what I’m supposed to six days a week. The most productive, disciplined period of my life. I keep having to pinch myself. And all it’s taken is moving to a different country where—other than Scott—I don’t know anyone, where we have no internet connection, where the cricket is even more inaccessible (of course, now the test series against India has come and gone, Steve Waugh’s international career is over, and I’ve missed the whole thing), where there’s Silvia (the housekeeper) removing most housework procrastination, and where we’ve taken to reading our latest chapters out loud to each other every two or three days so there’s no possible way to hide a lack of productivity.

And even so, I still can’t just start working on the novel. Oh no, first, I have to gossip with Silvia in my faulty Spanish, make sure my water bottle’s entirely full, work on a musing, draft an email, look out the window—especially if there’s a bullfight on (we can see the crowd from here, but not the gory action), fix up my web site, bite my nails. And then, as a very last resort, write what I’m supposed to be writing.

I love it.

Here’s hoping I can keep the writer’s block as micro and under control when I return to those cities chockablock with distractions for me: Sydney & New York.

New York City & San Miguel de Allende,
25 October, 2003-9 January, 2004

English Language Soup

Studying Spanish and struggling to read newspapers, toothpaste packaging, movie subtitles, and, trickiest of all, struggling to coherently speak with locals, I’ve been thinking about language a lot. In Mexican Spanish the future tense as a verb conjugation is on its way out. My Spanish teacher has dutifully taught it to me, mourning the fact that fewer and fewer people use it in spoken discourse. A hundred years from now, she says, shaking her head it’ll be gone.

In English useful distinctions between certain words like "disinterested" and "uninterested" are all but gone except amongst a fanatical, pedantic few. The subjunctive, too, is on its last legs. My Spanish teacher says one of the hardest things about teaching English speakers is trying to explain the very concept of the subjunctive, let alone how it’s used (a lot) in Spanish. When’s the last time you heard someone say, "Would that she were still here?" My point exactly.

Two weeks ago I discovered that there’s no concept of the double negative in Spanish nor any notion of the split infinitive. Hooray for Spanish! Split infinitives and double negatives are about as meaningful and useful as the weird USian rule about not wearing white shoes after Labour Day. I mean, huh?

I have no idea how the double negative rule originated (and now that I’m not a professional scholar, buggered if I’ll do the research to find out) but I do know that the idea of the split infinitive is a hold over from Latin grammar. From those halcyon days when grammars of English were first being written and it didn’t occur to anyone that you might write one by making actual observations about how English functioned. What a ludicrous idea that would be. No, no, best we base our grammar wholesale on the Latin one. Those Romans know from grammars. And let’s stuff our brand new grammar full of dumb rules that get in the way of making meaning.

Splitting your infinitives is impossible in Latin—they’re one word. For some insane reason those early grammarians decided to decree the non splitting of the entirely splittable English infinitive. It made no sense then; it makes no sense now. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Got quite a ring to it, that does. To go boldly where no one has gone before. Boldly to go . . . I don’t think so. Every time I hear someone tut-tutting over the Star Trek motto, muttering about infinitives being split, I want to sit them down and ask them to explain to me exactly what about sticking an adverb in between the preoposition "to" and the verb interferes with making meaning? I bet you gazillions of dollars they would have no response other than: "it just sounds better." Ignore them, people, they’re insane.

Far more annoying though is the idea of the double negative. The English language, people, is not maths. If someone says, "I ain’t got no love for him." It’s pretty clear that person is not about to propose. The classic example, of course, is more along the lines of "No, I do not want to not have him in my life." The problem there is not double negatives, it’s incoherence.

I remember a bewildering array of nonsense exhortations to not commit grammatical felonies when I was enduring my primary, secondary and, sadly, tertiary education. (For that matter, I’m still coming across some of these nutteries in red line comments from editors). Never end a sentence in a preposition or conjunction. (An impossibility if you’re an Australian, but). Avoid repetition at all costs. (A particularly egregious one which leads to all sorts of horrifying burly detectivisms [scroll down]). Never begin a sentence with "but" or "and". (But why not? And how am I supposed to avoid it?). A sentence must have a verb in it. (Why? Because.) Never use "I" in an essay; an essay written in first person cannot be objective. (Post-structuralism seems to have killed that one dead. Yay, post-structuralism.)

One of the hardest things about learning another language is trying to figure out aphorisms and other idiomatic expressons. I know, I know, I shouldn’t try. Most of the time you can’t understand them, you can only memorise them. There are still expressions in English I don’t understand. I only learnt what "A stitch in time saves nine" means when Scott explained it to me a few days go. Never learned to sew, me, so sewing metaphors aren’t exactly second nature. And what on Earth does "Don’t come the raw prawn with me" really mean, and more to the point, why?

As they say in Spanish, "nunca va a hacer casa de azulejos" (you’re never going to build a house of tiles). Or, more to the point, "nunca falta un roto para un descosido" (never miss a broken thing for an unstitched one).

Feliz año nuevo (happy new year).

San Miguel de Allende, 6 January 2004

Being Dumped is Much Much Worse

I have a friend who for a very long time contended that dumping someone was awful, truly awful, perhaps even worse than being dumped. She argued that she, having been forced to dump several lovers, had never gotten the amount of sympathy she deserved for the pain she had to endure putting her hapless exes out of their misery.

At the time I had never been dumped (neither had she) and was entirely persuaded by her reasoning. I, too, had never gotten sufficient sympathy. Ending a relationship hurts. True, it was a relationship you were tired of, that was driving you nuts, that you were relieved was over, but you still had fond memories. Worse still, you had to return all the cool stuff you’d borrowed (most of which was a present from you in the first place), mutual friends weren’t speaking to you, you’d had to find a new hairdresser, a new favourite café, and worst of all: not one person felt remotely sympathetic about your suffering just because you weren’t walking around swollen eyed, beating your chest and moaning. Dreadfully unfair.

Then I was dumped.

What a load of cobblers the above is. There is no comparison between being dumped and dumping someone. It’s the difference between stabbing someone and being stabbed. Even if your fingers were cramped from gripping the knife too tight, or worse case scenario, you were dumb enough to let your fingers slip on to the blade, you’re still not the one with the sucking chest wound, vital organs falling out willy-nilly. At worst you have a couple of sliced fingers. Boo-bloody-hoo.

Nothing makes it better. You were just about to dump them. Nope, you feel even worse. You never loved them anyway. Nope, not feeling less pain. You’re better off without them. Nope, bastard didn’t give you the chance to figure that out for yourself. They are now going out with the biggest whore/bastard in the known universe. Nope, cause what does that make you? Did they upgrade or downgrade?

I blame romance.

I lay the blame for the ridiculous amount of pain on the idea—reinforced by insane amounts of propaganda every single day of our lives—that without a life-partner (let’s all take turns to shudder at that neologism) you are nothing. If you’re not in a couple you’re nobody.

Life, we are taught, is about growing up. A grown up does not live with their parents, or flat with friends. A grown up has a means of support (most often a job) and a partner. But for some reason it’s the partner that’s the main bit: a person with a job who lives alone is somehow pathetic, not quite grown up—even if they’re getting laid when they want to, have thousands of friends, are world leaders in their field—they’re not complete and won’t be until they find The One.

Being a grown up is all about romantic love, but a very narrowly defined version. Romantic love is exclusive, sexual, between two (and only two) individuals. To be a true grown up you have to find your soul mate, move in together, and then reproduce. Find The One, have babies, die: that’s life.

So how come so few of the couples I know (married and unmarried) stay together longer than a year or two? How come so many of the ones that do are miserable? How come so many single people I know are happy, at least that is until they’re reminded that they’re single: "Oops, sorry, forgot, mate. Yup, you’re right. I’m miserable. Life alone is like a fish without a bicycle. A prison without walls. Sorry, miserable. Yep, that’s me, totally miserable."

How come the majority of the longest relationsionships in my circles are between good friends? That’s right "just" good friends. People who have known each other for years and years and years, have loaned each other money, helped rear each other’s children, read each other’s books, shared houses, shared jobs, but who aren’t in a sexual relationship with each other. How come the myths of our potential lives are centered around romantic love instead of friendship?

Who is this One that we’re all supposed to be waiting for? In the very few cases when The One comes along, doesn’t The One turn out to be your best friend who you just happen to find sexually attractive and enjoy living with? All the happy sexual relationships that I’ve seen last were built around close abiding friendships.

I see friends in relationships with people they don’t much like, because somehow that’s more grown up than being single. I see friendships destroyed when friends become lovers and it doesn’t work out and somehow the friendship dies in the process. I see single friends, otherwise perfectly happy, beating themselves up because they haven’t found the mythical One yet.

And "single"? What does that mean? How can someone with thousands of friends whose whole life is dominated by their relationships to their family, friends, colleagues. How can they be described as single?

I know people in couples for whom the term "single" is better suited. Totally focussed on each other, erradicating virtually every other connection they have in the world. They work together, eat together, finish each other sentences. Until finally one of them goes barking mad, the relationship ends, and then, suddenly, they each remember about friendships, communities, the existence of other people.

Why do we live in a world where one model of happiness is set up as the ideal for every one? What if one day it were decreed that we must all love chocolate? After all, the majority of people love chocolate, why shouldn’t everyone? And if you didn’t spend your whole life consuming vast amounts of the stuff your life would be viewed as a waste and a failure.

Absurd. But no more absurd than expecting everyone to want True Love with The One.

To return to my point of departure: Why is being dumped worse than dumping someone? Why do so many worlds crumble when the person you’ve talked yourself into believing is The One leaves?

Because so many of us have bought the romantic lie that all our happiness—that our very claim to a fulfilled adult life—is predicated on our success in romantic love. If it’s you ending it, you’re in control, you have hope of better things (or, if you’re crafty, you already have the next One lined up). You’re ready for what’s going to happen next.

The dumpee has made no contingency plans, is still wrapped in the warm glow of the delusions they’ve fed themselves about the relationship. Now they have to divest themselves of those delusions, find someone new who’ll be The One, not another Wrong One. A whole new bunch of delusions to weave. Or scariest of all—they must face the possibility that they may never find The One.

The truly delusional dumpee may not have any friends to turn to—not even a cat or dog—wrapped as they were in the ludicrous idea that you only need one person in your life.

That’s why being dumped is so much worse.

There is one compensation: the dumped always get sympathy. Another of the perks of a world dominated by the myth of romantic love is that people know you’re in mourning and will treat you nice.

Not so if a friendship ends. No matter how devastating, once you’re out of high school you’re supposed to be grown up enough to deal with that sort of thing on your own time. But as we all know the end of a friendship can be every bit as dreadful and destructive as the end of a romantic relationship.

Console yourself with the knowledge that it was only your lover of the last six months who dumped you, not your best friend of the last fifteen years.

Sydney, New York City & San Miguel de Allende, 10 Oct-31 Dec 2003

The First Week of the Next Three Months

San Miguel de Allende is ankle-spraining territory. All the narrow streets and footpaths in the old part of the city are paved with cobble stones. Big, uneven cobble stones, with lots of little pebbles that work their way lose to wind up under your soles. The pot holes are sharp and ragged. Cars crawl along at less than 20 kms an hour, hardly fast enough to overtake a donkey. When the streets and footpaths are wet—and with the run-off from watering plants on roof gardens they often are—they’re slipperier than a Southern politician in a jelly-wrestling contest. If you see a woman confidently negotiating the streets in high heels you know she’s a local. Tourists like me wear sturdy shoes and hope for the best.

San Miguel is not very noisy. Before we arrived I did a little research (very little—lots of nasty deadlines before we came), and found many references to the noisiness of this town, most often to the constantly ringing church bells which ring at (to gringo ears) random intervals throughout the night and day. Our landlady left us a note warning of all the night noises: cats, dogs, horse police, birds, church bells, loud music. I’ve slept soundly every night thus far.

When we go up on to the roof to watch the sunset, I’m startled by how quiet it is. All I can hear is the occasional barking dog and passing car; the church bells; birds; wind in the trees; music that makes us want to get up and dance from somewhere nearby—the houses are all so close together it’s impossible to tell from where; squeals from the children next door playing a complicated game with the christmas decorations that results in parental intervention every fifteen minutes or so. They’re all pleasant sounds, none of them near loud enough to interrupt our conversation or make us spill our lime-soaked beers. There are no jackhammers, no deafening sirens, no violent arguments at three in the morning, no shithouse music loud enough to raise the dead. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in New York City and have lost my sense of what’s loud and what’s not.

The smells of San Miguel are more pervasive: wood-burning fires, urine, cooking smells, dust, donkey shit, gas for heating, jasmine and other floral smells I haven’t yet identified. There’s lots of flora that’s common at home: jasmine, bougainvillea, ponsettias, jacaranda trees. And many strange ones I’ve never seen or smelled before. At night when the jasmine’s at it’s strongest, I close my eyes and feel like I’m back in Sydney.

Many of the gringos you see here are residents. Like our landlady they’re mostly over sixty and from the United States. Sometimes San Miguel feels like a retirement village for rich arty whites from north of the border. Here they can play bridge and paint and write and sculpt and afford someone to clean their houses and a nurse too if one is needed. Most of them learned Spanish at a late age and speak it loud and slow with the exact same intonation and pronunciation as their English. My own Spanish has been getting quieter and quieter. I wince at my Australian vowels.

There are galleries everywhere. Right now the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez has an exhibition of a photographer I’d never heard of: Enrique Bostelmann. I’m in love. He’s incredible. Enormous pictures—a metre or more across—of small things that are incredibly sharp. Each image is a frozen moment from one of those dreams where everything is exactly how it should be but wrong and strange and wonderful at the same time. His images are crystal clear and warm and arresting: a crumpled silver oil can on a background of dappled terracotta; a detail of a typewriter, all greens and blacks and silvers and grays. Funny too: a cockroach upended on a directory open to the funeral listings. The exhibition stays open til January. I’ll be back.

Renting a house without a maid doesn’t seem to be an option here, which is kind of weird. Fortunately Silvia is a sweetheart who enjoys correcting my Spanish and answering any questions I have: Why do so many places have plastic bags of water attached to their entranceways? Sadly my Spanish may have failed me (again) because I think she said it was to keep the flies away.

Silvia comes four times a week (how clean does a house need to be?) at nine AM, which means we have to get up and out somewhat earlier than we’re used to (we work until really late, okay?). Every day she begins by banging a broom at the vines covering the walls, sending dead leaves cascading to the ground. She stands on a ladder to make sure she gets all the way to the top. I’ve never seen anyone do this before. She sweeps up the dust from the footpath and the road immediately outside the house and brushes down the outside walls then she scrubs the front steps and cobble stones clean. I’ve never seen anyone do that either. Apparently I am a wretched house cleaner.

Two days ago Silvia brought traditional christmas decorations for the hall and ground floor rooms. There wasn’t a Santa Claus or red-nosed reindeer in sight. Bright green, blue, pink and yellow crosses, circles and pinatas, all made of paper.

Silvia was amazed when I exclaimed at how big this house is. I told her I’d never lived in anything so large. Spread out over three stories with a separate study in back, it has four bathrooms, two patios and a roof deck. Silvia thinks this house is small. Told me it was much smaller than hers. Each floor would be a large one- room apartment in New York City.

The beggars I’ve seen have all been ancient women. Sitting on the narrow footpaths, wrapped in faded coloured shawls, skin brown and wrinkled like a walnut. Shrunken, shrivelled tiny dolls. Mostly they don’t say anything, just hold out their hands and wait. On Sunday they were everywhere.

December is one of San Miguel’s slowest months and on top of that the economy has been hard hit by the recession in the US: USA sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia. We go out to eat in restaurants with superb food and we’re the only ones there. Last night we climbed to the top of the hill and came across a gorgeous hotel painted in earth colours: yellows, reds and browns. The clerk smiled at us broadly and said sure we could look around. Lights were on in all the public areas, blindingly bright chandeliers, spotlights all over the front lawn and swimming pool. The view of San Miguel was extraodinary. You could see everything. In the dining room every table was perfectly set with crystal and silver, white table cloths and napkins. A fire blazed away. We saw no guests. No one in the dining room, no one in the bar, not even a bar tender. There was the hotel clerk, a maid who smiled and agreed that the hotel was beautiful, but no one else. Everything was silent and empty and echoing. It made us both shiver. We didn’t eat there.

We’re here to write a novel each. Scott’s is due at the beginning of March, mine in August. It’s a writing holiday. Our second. We stay in a place where we know no one and thus have no social responsibilities, very little everyday admin, and just write. Scott’s been here twice before, writing the first draft of Evolution’s Darling and a large chunk of The Risen Empire. So far we’ve done a good deal of walking and talking and eating and drinking, but not vast quantities of writing.
There’s so much to exclaim over. The food is amazing. Jicama is in season, served at the beginning of a meal in place of corn chips and salsa. You squeeze lime on top and then sprinkle with chilli powder. It’s become my favourite thing in all the world. I’ve never tasted jicama so crisp and sweet before, turns out that’s because I’ve never had it fresh before. Right now it’s in season. November and December, we were told, are jicama months.

We eat breakfast in a hotel that was once a hacienda built by a silver baron two hundreds years ago, and later owned by an opera and movie star in the thirties. We sit in the courtyard with a large fountain, terracotta tiles, parrots in white cages. Looking up all I can see is blue skies and the tops of the trees in the gardens and the nearby park. The food is divine. Eggs with cheese and chillies served sizzling in the clay containers they were cooked in. Coffee and juice comes with fresh cooked bread and best of all—heavenly cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven.

We met a woman travelling with her parents over breakfast. She’s a screenwriter working out of Los Angeles but living as much as she can in Vancouver. Like us she’s here to write, like us she’s had more productive weeks. She’s Canadian, her parents are originally from England. They escaped because England’s gray drizzly damp cold week after week after week isn’t an existence fit for a dog. They’ve lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Honduras and now divide their time between Canada and Mexico; they love both places and want never to be cold again. You get older, your blood gets thinner, they explained. I’ve decided that’s my excuse too. Though the nights and mornings here are cold, the days are warm.

San Miguel is ludicrously beautiful. Up in the hills there’s a cactus preserve laid out around a rocky gorge. You stand on the cliffs and look back towards San Miguel’s church spires, and multi-coloured, crowded-together rectangular houses that flow from room to courtyard to room all with the same tiled floors, allowing no clear distinction between inside and outside. Very few of the houses are free standing, so the streetscapes are long expanses of walls of varying heights painted reds, yellows, browns, greens, maroons, whites and blues—some crisp and new, some flaking away in wabi sabi elegance—interrupted only by elaborate doors, windows and balconies of wood, wrought iron, brass. Ceiling beams pass through the walls to overhang the footpath, convenient for hanging lanterns and christmas decorations. Our bedroom has white curtains: in the early morning and afternoon sun they glow blue and terracotta from the light reflecting on the houses nearby.

Tomorrow, I imagine, we’ll write like the wind.

San Miguel de Allende, 2-8 December 2003

Language Soup

My fractured Spanish came into play at immigration, mere minutes off the plane.

How many days were we planning to stay?

"Ninety," Scott said.

"Nineteen?"

"No, ninety."

A puzzled look.

"Noventa," I said, dredging deep for the word. A delay caused by my innumeracy as much as my crap Spanish.

Raised eyebrows followed by (I think) a joke about staying in Mexico for such a long time. I smiled. Scott smiled. The official behind the counter smiled, then scribbled down 90 on the form. So far, so good. (What was the equivalent expression in Spanish? I had no idea.)

On the bus to San Miguel de Allende I stared out the window at all the signs, trying to figure out what they meant. Idiosyncratic advertising syntax and a barrage of words I’d never seen limited my success. Spanish words and phrases started buzzing in my head. What did rincón mean? Palapa? Relox? A reloj is a watch, my brain told me, remembering at the same time how to say: "I don’t remember what any of these words mean."

I studied Spanish in my first year of university with very average grades. Two years later I stayed in Salmanca in Spain for five months, studying the language and culture intensively for four. By the end of my stay in Spain, I was able to have reasonably fluent conversations about pretty much everything. My tenses tended to stay in simple past and present with a tiny smattering of conditional, subjunctive and future. I’d still muck up the two different forms of the verb to be, feminine and masculine, prepositions, subjunctive (except in the formulaic sentences where it’s always used), and erred on the side of paranoia with my use of the formal you, causing much hilarity.

I learned how to lisp on Zs and many Cs and Ds, to drop the d in words that ended -ado so that all such words rhymed with Bilbao (our teacher hated us doing, this but that’s how the people all around us spoke including our teacher when she wasn’t concentrating), and to pronounce "ll" so it sounded more like a j then a y (this last one was our teacher’s fault too, haling as she did from Madrid.) Somehow these pronunciations became embedded in me.

Back in Sydney, and later in New York, the only Spanish speakers I came across were from Latin America. When I spoke to them, they laughed. Apparently the lisping is heard by some as a posh accent. Imagine someone from, say Norway, who has learned their English from teachers at Eton and Harrow and now sounds like a Norwegian Prince Charles with mangled grammar and limited vocab, but lots of plummy vowels. Shudder.

I became increasingly reluctant to speak Spanish. If I spoke without the lisp, I lost all fluency, forgot most verb cases, and indeed most words. If I said bugger it and lisped, I got laughed at. So over the twelve years since I studied in Salamanca my Spanish has dwindled away, but turns out not to have died completely. One day in Mexico and I had the same headache I once knew so well. Head throbbing from too much input, trying to access words and sounds and ideas long buried, straining to really, really listen, to make meaning from the words and phrases uttered all around me. I am both better and much, much worse than I thought I’d be. It’s does my head in.

Because Scott has never studied Spanish, and on his visits to Mexico has been wrapped up in writing books in English, he has very little Spanish. He navigates, I talk.

I can do everyday interactions, but am hopeless at overhearing conversations. There are so many words and expressions I don’t recognise. They don’t have the same plural you as in Spain. I haven’t heard any of the slang I knew. Is that because they don’t use that slang in this part of Mexico? Or because it’s now completely out of date? Or both?

Until Thursday night, not one person had laughed at the lisp (except Scott). One man asked me where I learned my Spanish. When I said Salamanca, he was delighted. Told me how much he loves Spanish accents. He seemed to think it was cute. Scott says he was just trying to chat me up (how do you say that in Mexican Spanish I wonder?).

Thursday night we went to a restaurant/bar further up the hill. Drank margaritas (our first here) and ate jicama and enchiladas and had two more margaritas and then ended up in the bar talking to the manager’s brother and girlfriend and another couple. My Spanish was firing along, fuelled by tequila. I understood most everything that was being said. (The manager and his brother have lived in the USA as much as Mexico, so Scott had someone to talk to).

The guitarist played songs by Silvio Rodriguez and then joined us. We talked about how superb Rodriguez is, about John Dos Pasos, Enrique Bostelmann and what Australians and Mexicans think of the United States (don’t worry, USians, as you can imagine, it’s all good). Through all of this more rounds kept being ordered. Someone seemed to think it would be a good idea for us to try shots of local tequila, and my Spanish began a precipitious decline to the point that when we left, I was unable to understand a simple query as to whether we would be returning.

Lesson: two glasses alcohol, good; any more, bad. Next morning a hangover added to the language headache. Surprisingly much writing was done.
Today I begin one-on-one tutoring. Three hours a day of Intensive Spanish for five days. By the end of the week I hope to have the language soup under control and my lisp eradicated.

San Miguel de Allende, 8 December 2003

A Night at the Oak Room

I’ve never been in a room with so many face lifts. Terrifying. The air was heavy with perfume. They wore diamonds dangling from fingers, wrists, ears, throats, or glittering in their hair. The men wore suits, enhanced with ties, cravats, and handkerchiefs daringly sticking up from breast pockets. These were the kind of people who own more than one house, car, boat. These were not people like me and Scott.

Here we were jammed cheek by jowl into the Oak Room with people who didn’t live in the East Village or Park Slope or Harlem or Chelsea or any of the other places our friends reside. We were the youngest in the room. I was the only woman not wearing make up; Scott the only man whose shirt was not cinched with a tie. We overheard them subtly pointing out the celebs. Only one of which we’d heard of—Helen Gurly Brown—seated at a table just near us (the Oak Room ain’t big; everyone was seated at a table just near us) and we weren’t a hundred per cent sure which one was her.

What the hell were we doing there? Scott’s fault. He knows that I was brought up on the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter. That my head is jammed full of the lyrics of hundreds and hundreds of standards from the twenties, thirties and forties. He was shocked to learn that I had never seen any of that music performed live, had never been to any cabaret. We were going to celebrate two years living together by doing just that.

This was opening night. Before the show even started Andrea Marcovicci, looking divine and very much the diva with her short silvery hair, high cheekbones, and black and silver shell top and skirt ensemble, was circling the room greeting people with a theatrical "Hello, darling!" and air kisses. She seemed to know almost everyone. The couple seated opposite us from Bay Ridge (Sydneysiders, think Sylvania Waters) made sure they attended all her shows, owned all her cds, and were shocked that I’d never heard of Andrea before.

By the time the show was about to start my expectations were through the roof. Scott had waxed over-the-top enthusiastic about her Gershwin show. It wasn’t just me expecting something earth-shatteringly good: even before the lights had gone down the room quieted, all you could hear were diamonds clinking. The expectations made the air almost as thick as if people were still allowed to smoke. Then the lights went down, everyone held their breaths. Andrea lit so beautifully that she glowed, strolled out smiling, blowing kisses, took up the microphone and sang.

Vibrato. Lots of vibrato. I hate vibrato. Her voice was not the jazzy contralto I’d been expecting. She’s more in the Mary Martin Broadway singer mold. I hate Mary Martin’s voice. The song ended, everyone applauded. Scott leaned forward, "What do you think?" I turned, gave him a frozen smile, and squeezed his knee. Fortunately she started singing "If I Were a Bell" almost at once, making it impossible for me to say anything.

Andrea didn’t destroy "If I Were a Bell" as Jean Simmons had in the movie version. Her diction was perfect, and there was considerably less vibrato. Better, I thought, nervously, but she’s not exactly Sarah Vaughan or Ute Lemper. I may be able to endure this evening. The song ended, Andrea started talking, started charming, she introduced her two accompanists, one on piano and the other on bass, both superb musicians. She began to tell the story of upper-class Jewish lyricist Frank Loesser who was never quite what his mother wanted. Tin Pan Alley so declasse. Andrea described mother and son and I could see them vividly.

Something magical happened. Andrea was wonderful, her voice suddenly the best voice I have ever heard. She sang and I was grinning. I looked around: everyone in the room was grinning. Every single person, from audience to waiters, had their eyes on her. Riveted. I hugged Scott, said, "Thank you."

She told more stories, mostly about Loesser and his first wife, who was known as the evil of two Loessers. His second wife, his widow, was in the audience, as were his two daughters, one of whom had just published a book about her father, to which Andrea referred often. I wanted to buy the book, I wanted to buy Andrea, or perhaps, be Andrea, or have this show never end, or something.

She was warm, witty, funny. An incredible story-teller. Her show is not a series of songs so much as a two-hour long opera, each song following naturally, almost, inevitably, from the next—those we all knew and could mouth the words to as well as the known-only-to-musicologists, not-sung-since-the-thirties ditties. Each story Andrea shared with us built on her previous stories. The more stories and songs Andrea sang, the more immersed in this world we became. Andrea asked us questions, laughed at the shouted answers, admitted her occasional ignorance and hoped the experts in the audience would forgive her.

She sang to each and every one of us: shaming us for breaking her heart, begging our permission to go out and play, exhorting us to go buy war bonds, flirting with us.

When it ended we were left dizzy, instantly pleading for encores, not because that’s what you do, but because we weren’t ready for the real world. The thought of leaving the hot, over-crowded Oak Room, full of all these people who had become our best friends in all the world. We applauded till our hands tingled, smiling at each other warmly, knowing that no one else could understand what we’d just experienced.

The last encore was, "Baby, It’s Cold Outside", sung with her brilliant pianist. Andrea tempted him to stay, his resistance was futile. It was hilarious. Funnier than I’ve ever heard that song be before. She invited everyone to sing along; we all did.

The show ended with Andrea being swamped with many gorgeous bouquets. It was her birthday, as well as the anniversary of her first appearance at the Oak Room some twenty years earlier. She thanked everyone, from Loesser’s family to her other friends and supporters and the music experts in the audience. She got teary; we got teary.

Neither Scott nor I were in any mood to go home. We sat in the Algonquin bar drinking cocktails. Me, one appropriately called an Andrea Marcovicci, Scott a Dorothy Parker. The diva herself held court at a table nearby, talking to everyone, shining as brightly as she had while performing. Looking not remotely tired.

I ran into her (literally) on the way back from the bathroom. Hot-cheeked and stammering I gushed about how much I’d enjoyed the show, how I’d never heard those songs performed live before. I babbled on about it being Scott’s present to me on our anniversary. She put her arm around me, beckoned to Scott to come over, hugged him too, told us that the second anniversary was special, and several other things I didn’t hear because I was in touched-by-a-goddess mode. Gormless fan, that’s me.

On our way out we passed another couple, in their seventies or early eighties. Both dressed up to the nines with beatific expressions on their faces.

"Wasn’t the show wonderful?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," the woman said. "You were there?" She sounded surprised.

We nodded, both grinning.

"So wonderful to see young people!" the man said, as though he’d never seen anyone below fifty before.

"She’s glorious, isn’t she?" Scott said.

They agreed that she was, delighted by our (in context) youthful presence, as if our sole purpose in attending the show had been to reassure them that the music of Frank Loesser would not be forgotten.

We walked home in the cold autumn night, past the over-the-top gaudiness of Times Square, tipsy, giggling and enchanted.

New York City, 19 November 2003

Death Under the Train

The train went over a bump. Scott shuddered. He said it felt like something had gone through the whole train. I felt nothing, too absorbed by Holly Black’s Tithe.

About a minute later the train stopped. The announcement that followed made no sense: something about a "trespass incident" and there being "no immediate danger" to the passengers. Not the most calming statement in the world.

"I think we hit someone," Scott said.

The man behind agreed, said he’d felt the train lurch. Someone else said there’d been four suicides on this stretch of track in the past month. One woman had been on the train for the last one. It had taken eight hours before they were transferred to another. Great.

This happened yesterday, on our way from Washington DC to New York City. We came to a halt in New Jersey just half an hour from home. The conductor confirmed that the train had hit someone. They didn’t know if the person was a suicide or not, but it was likely. The HazMat (Hazardous Materials) team had been called. Our train wasn’t going anywhere.

An hour later an empty New Jersey Transit train pulled up alongside our Amtrak Metroliner. It was announced that we would transfer to this train and that we must not under any circumstance touch both trains at once: "We don’t want anyone else to get hurt". The dire warning sounded kind of unnecessary, I couldn’t imagine the trains would be so close it’d be a problem.

I was wrong. I stepped down to the gravel, illuminated by the light of a green glow stick—giving the fleeting impression that we were on our way to a particularly isolated rave—and there was barely half a metre between the two trains. One inopportune sneeze and you’d've got yourself a nasty electric shock. I stepped up onto the less comfortable New Jersey Transit train quick and cautious as I could.

We sat with a woman who’d also been heading home from the World Fantasy Convention. Although we’d never met, we recognised each other from our orange-handled and remarkably well-made WFC canvas bags. The three of us spent the remainder of the journey gossiping about genre publishing, barely touching on what had thrown us together. The whole thing an inconvenience, a loss of an hour and a half.

Did the person who ended their life under the train think of that? They’d be a mangled corpse and the people on the train above would be bitching about their journey being delayed, not even knowing their name? The suicide’s massive egocentricity in disrupting the lives of not just their family and friends, but of a trainload of total strangers, echoed by the lesser egocentricity of those strangers who just wanted to be home.

But we did talk about what had happened. There just wasn’t much to say: Did you feel it or not? Was it a suicide or not? Would we find out what happened? I bet each and every one of us wondered who it had been.

I searched online today and found nothing.

While we were slowly making our way to Penn Station, most of the Metroliner’s crew were still there waiting for the HazMat team to be done. The two conductors at our end of the train were visibly shaken. Not wanting to be there, not wanting to be answering the same questions over and over again.

And what of the HazMat team? Does anyone ever become completely inured to clearing away human body parts? And how awful if you do become inured?

When I was a child living in the Northern Territory with my family, a man died on the railway tracks. He’d been a clown at the Mataranka Rodeo who’d gotten blind drunk after the show and fallen asleep on the tracks. The train was only used for freight and ran just once a week. The odds were in his favour, but his luck stank. He died instantly.

I used to have nightmares where me and my father found his body. The dreams were so vivid that for a long time I was confused and thought I had found his body, in three neat pieces, still wearing his clown makeup.

Last night he was in my dreams again. His first appearance in many years.

New York City, 3 November 2003

4 Nov 2003: Scott found this article which gives some details of what happened. We still don’t know whether it was an accident or suicide or who the man was.

World Fantasy Convention, Washington DC

Halloween Weekend 2003

Kelly Link and Lena DeTar look on as Justine Larbalestier and Gwenda Bond argue over who the real mastermind is.


Steve Pasechnick, Gwenda Bond, Cecilia Tan, Scott Westerfeld and Christopher Rowe dissect strange matter on the bed.


Tragically, Gwenda Bond and Kelly Link are unable to resolve their differences.


Kristen Lindvahl, Rick Bowes and Bill Shunn discuss their shared mormon past.

Why I Use the Term USian

Because everytime I forget and call them “Americans”, I get in trouble from my Mexican and Canadian friends. I hate being in trouble.

The Mexicans tell me I should call them “gringos” or “yanquis”, but then it turns out that they’d also call Canadians or English people or me a gringo (okay, gringa, whatever), thus limiting the usefulness of the term. I have a Texan husband who points out that yankee does not apply to the people of the southern states of the USA. (Though from my brief sojourns in the south I noted that Southerners more commonly use the term “damnyankee” to refer to USians from the northern states.)

I’d love to call them sepos, but sadly the word derives from yankee: septic tank rhymes with yank. Apparently this was first used during World War II when there were too many sepo soldiers (overpaid and over here) polluting the streets of Sydney and Brisbane, luring away “our” women with their nylon stockings and chocolate (those bastards). The straight Aussie boys were not well pleased. (I don’t really care whether this is the true derivation. I like it and will continue to quote it no matter what convincing contrary evidence the gentle readers choose to send in my direction.)

My Canadian friends use “USian”. It’s ugly, looks foul on the page, trips awkwardly from the tongue, but perversely I kind of like it.

New York City, 22 October 2003

Going Home

Jetlag makes me cry. Or maybe it was going to see Japanese Story with no warning that it is a very sad film (Toni Collette looks so chirpy on the movie poster). Or maybe it was arriving and still having major deadlines to churn through in the first few days. (Apparently the elves hadn’t been busy writing articles for me while I was in the air. Bastards.) Or discovering that Blundstones have gotten way more expensive than they used to be.

Or it could well be the jetlag. A week of not being quite sure what day or hour or continent or hemisphere it is. Of crippling tiredness when the distance between wide-awake volubility and deep REM sleep is about half a second. The only warning you get is a Boris Karloff-like voice in your head intoning: Must Sleep Now. Even if you’re in the middle of a fabulous dinner with friends, or an ultimate frisbee game, or some other event at which falling down and snoring is not the done thing. (Is there a social event at which falling down snoring is de rigeur? And if not, why not?)

Going home for me involves twenty-four hours of travel, at least two changes of plane, running the gauntlet of security, crying babies, airplane food (You ordered vegetarian? I’m sorry, ma’am, we didn’t get that order. We do, however, have many stale bread rolls.), dreadful movies, running out of books (I thought you were bringing the books!) and wishing I was rich and thus sitting, or rather, lying in first class, with an endless supply of good books and movies.

One of the many horrifying things about plane legs that are fifteen hours long is that even when you’re half way there’s still another seven and a half hours to go. Just to make sure you don’t forget for a second that it takes forever to get home, there’s a screen with a tiny image of a plane on the route between LA and Sydney. Every time you glance up the little plane appears not to have moved a milimetre, even though you could have sworn the last time you looked was more than two hours ago.

The only way to endure it without going completely barking mad is to remember that when you were a kid you loved flying. Truly. You’d look out the window and delight at the cloud formations, you’d revel in the free kids’ pack with its fabulous colouring-in and join-the-dot opportunities and best of all—free pencils. If that doesn’t work remind yourself that the journey from Madrid to Sydney is much much worse.

The reward at the end of the horror is that you’re in Sydney. And honestly, after that hell where would you rather be than Heaven on Earth? Every day (that isn’t pouring torrential rain) I walk down the streets with tears of joy (or jetlag-induced fatigue) in my eyes singing because I’m home and the bottle brush, jasmine and jacaranda trees are in bloom, the air full of rainbow lorikeets by day and flying foxes by night. I’m surrounded by people with accents like mine, who know who Aunty Jack and Sherbert and Tracy Moffatt are. (Well, okay, at least the folks over thirty know.) I get to hang out with my family and friends every day. And I can buy a new pair of blunnies even if the price is edging up on outrageous, though not enough to make me cry.

Sydney, 9 October 2003

A Few Things I Meant to Say

You can count how many times I’ve been interviewed without moving beyond fingers. The scary thing is that this number includes job interviews. After each and every one of those interviews, my head is full of all the things I wished I’d said.

This morning from 5AM to 7AM I was interviewed by the kindly Jim Freund for his Hour of the Wolf program. It’s a two-hour show and the interview went well (it’s hard to tell when you’re the interviewee, but my unbiased husband assures me it went splendidly). Jim and I talked a lot. I had such a good time I almost forgot I was on air. And despite the TWO WHOLE HOURS, as we approached the final minutes I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying: "Stop! You can’t end now. I haven’t said this and this and this."

So bugger it. I shall say a few of them now:

Many letters to the editors of early science fiction magazines are reproduced in my book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. I read out a number of them, including a 1953 letter by Lula B. Stewart published in Thrilling Wonder Stories. In it she mentions a Big Name Fan whose last name is Bradley. I neglected to mention the full name of that well-known fifties fan: Marion Zimmer Bradley.

I talked a lot about how much fun it was reading the early letters and editorials of science fiction magazines from 1926 through to 1972, but I did not mention how touching some of those letters can be. I did not remember to read out a wonderful moving letter by Naomi Slimmer of a small town in Kansas, published in 1939. The letter wonderfully evokes how sf magazines were a lifeline for many readers in remote parts of the United States.

We left taking calls from listeners to way too late in the show and so could only take two they both asked smart, interesting questions and I didn’t have a chance to say so on air. I particularly appreciated the chance to rabbit on further about Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance (1951). I forgot to steer the interested listener to this essay where I discuss in detail how and why my book was written at all.

We didn’t discuss how researching and writing The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction led to my becoming a part of the science fiction community, particularly the feminist science fiction community that centres around Wiscon. In other words the thesis that I was arguing in the book–that science fiction is not just a collection of books, but a living breathing community–has been borne out in my own life. I went from someone who quite liked science fiction but read many other things and had never heard of sf magazines or conventions, to becoming an sf person married to another sf person. Gentle Reader, be careful what you research, lest this insidious process take over your life.

We mentioned that Battle of the Sexes was nominated for a Hugo Award, but I didn’t publically thank everyone who nominated and voted for me. When I first found out about the nomination I let out a little scream and fell off my chair. Literally. I’m still gobsmacked that Battle, a university press book, made it onto the ballot at all. I look at my little gold Hugo nominee’s pin with awe and wear it at every opportunity. I still have to pinch myself to check that it really happened.

I can’t believe I didn’t mention Johnny Cash, not even once. May he rest in peace.

There were many, many other things, but I shall attempt to save them for when Scott and I do our double act on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf in November.

New York City, 13 September 2003

Ten Things Australians should know about the USA

1. Yes, Virginia, there are USians with a sense of irony. The streets of NYC are paved with it. A few weeks ago I saw a gorgeous caricature of a woman with lots of makeup, high heels, big hair, in tight capris, flimsy T-shirt emblazoned in sparkling gold lettering with the word "darling", walking along with her tiny pet chihuahua and her enormous body-builder boyfriend. The dog, who was slightly bigger than my hand, fell into a hole in the footpath and got stuck, taking some coaxing and tugging to set it free. "See, honey?" she said to her man. "I told you this dog was too big." Try reading the stories of Terry Bisson, Kelly Link, or Howard Waldrop, or pretty much any good writing from the South (Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Florence King, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote). I appear to be implying that irony is a largely south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line thing. Au contraire. Read the sex advice columns of Dan Savage, check out the Onion, the Julia/Julie project, Bellona Times, or Izzle Pfaff. And, yes, sarcasm does count. I love sarcasm.

2. Very few USians are blonde. Even in California. Hell, especially in California.

3. USians are not all the same. Come on people, the USA has a population creeping up on 300 million and every last one of them is the same? You want diversity? Come to the United States of America. In NYC just walking a block you hear more accents then I’ve ever heard in Sydney, and I’m not simply talking about the Russians and Dominicans and French and Italians and Chinese, but the folk who hail from Kentucky and Minnesota and Rhode Island and Alabama and New Jersey. Unlike Australia, the USA has three strong colonial influences: the English, the Spanish and the French. It shows. For instance, Texas has been under six different flags: the Spanish, the French, the Mexican, the Texan, the Confederate and now, of course, the US flag. Texans will never forget those glorious five seconds when it was the nation of Texas. It’s the only state where the school kids have a clearer idea of what the state flag looks like than the national one. All the cities I’ve visited are markedly different: Austin is nothing like New York City which bares no resemblance to San Francisco which could not be more different from Los Angeles which sure as hell ain’t Chicago which can’t possibly be in the same country as Miami. And I’ve never been to New Orleans, the one everyone says is a whole other world.

4. USians do not uniformally dress badly. But I may not be the person to judge. Me, I like Hawaiian shirts.

5. They’re not all ignorant. Try telling that to any number of the world-class scholars here. Or to the bartender who told me in great detail about the war with Canada. "The USA went to war with Canada?" I repeated, ignorantly. I thought he was having a lend, apparently not. There’s not a country in the world, including Australia, that isn’t full of people who know only about their immediate (and I mean immediate) local area. I’ve met Australians who don’t know who the premier of their state is or, more shockingly, the prime minister (oh, okay, it was a five-year-old kid, but still!) Many non-Sydney-siders seem to be under the impression that every suburb of that fair city is on the beach, and that all the cops are corrupt. Such sad ignorance.

6. USians only rarely have names like Gidget or Rock. Disappointingly that turns out to have been a fifties thing. I have, however, met several Randys, a Sue-Ellen and a Cory (but he’s Canadian).

7. It may comes as a shock to some, but there are many USians who dislike the current adminstration. I’ve met many people here who do not suffer from the delusion that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks of 11 September, or that giving incredibly rich people massive tax breaks will help the poor. Not just people from predominantly liberal cities like Austin, NYC, Seattle, Madison, or San Francisco, but from Crawford, Texas (supposedly Bush country) and Lexington, Kentucky, from Maine, New Hampshire, Missouri, Alaska and Nebraska, from all over the USA. Yes, this is the country that produced Ronald Reagan and Ann Coulter, but it also produced Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

8. Some of the most annoying USians are actually Canadian: William Shatner, Jim Carrey and Celine Dion are not their fault.

9. Yes, you really do have to tip everyone for everything: you should tip waiters; everyone at a petrol station; tattooists (though possibly not if they’ve botched it by etching "LIGHTING" on your forearm when you asked for "LIGHTNING"); maids and bellboys; the hairdresser, hairwasher and receptionist; your friends; anyone who smiles at you in any service situation ever (or snarls for that matter). The amount varies radically, not just from state to state, and city to city, but from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The richer the area, the bigger the tip. Try to relax about it. Tipping only becomes an issue if you don’t tip or you tip too little. When that happens they will sure as hell let you know by threatening violence to your person (cab drivers are particularly touchy about tips) to avert disaster thrust $20 in their hands and run. Fortunately, unlike in socialist countries, tipping too much seems not to bother them.

10. Anything you can say about the USA is most likely true. It’s a big place; there are bound to be aliens landing in flying saucers somewhere.

In answer to the query: I use the term "USian" because all my Canadian and Mexican friends get cranky when I use the term "American" if I don’t mean them as well. Canadians are very scary.

New York City, 7 September 2003

The 61st WorldCon: Torcon 3, Toronto, Canada, 28 August-1 September 2003

Science fiction conventions are strange and World SF conventions are stranger than most. For starters these so-called WorldCons are usually held in the USA. Of the 61 to date, only 13 were held outside the USA. They are predominately attended by people from the USA—even when they’re not held there. I swear there seemed to be as many folk from the USA as from Canada at this year’s WorldCon. But those gentle folk of the United States of America have long had difficulty with the meaning of the word "world". Apparently they think it’s a synonym for the USA or possibly North America. How else to explain "World" Series baseball?

At least WorldCons have an excuse for their use of the term "world". The first World SF convention was held in New York City in 1939, borrowing the title from the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. The Fair really did involve people from countries all over the globe. More than 60 nations were included: Chile, Portugal, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Argentina, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan.

Increasingly WorldCons are earning their title, shifting from one non-USA WorldCon a decade, to four in the nineties (The Hague, Winnipeg, Glasgow and Melbourne). So far this century there’s just been TorCon 3 but in 2005 it will be Glasgow’s second chance to host a WorldCon, and if the eligible voters show any sense, the first Japanese WorldCon will be held in Yokohama in 2007.

Almost all of the 200 attendees of the first WorldCon were US citizens. They were all white and possibly as many as five of them were female. The majority were eighteen years old. At this year’s WorldCon there were around 4,000 of us. I hung out with people from Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain (hello Alejo!), the UK, and France. Many of them were female and some of them weren’t white. There were attendees whose time alive was numbered in weeks, and a few creeping up on a century of living.

Two attendees, Dave Kyle and Frederik Pohl, also attended the very first WorldCon (and many, many, many of the ones in between). Well, sort of, Fred Pohl was actually banned from attending the actual convention along with some other naughty New York Futurians. But he did hang out in the bar with the professional writers and claims that was far more fun than the official convention anyway. Based on my experience of conventions I don’t doubt it.

WorldCons are really many different cons all held at the same time. There’s filking (making up science-fiction related lyrics to well-known songs and then singing them), costuming, and media (film and television fans) and I’m sure many other streams I’m not aware of.

The days are filled with programming. Readings: if the reader is Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson, or China Mieville expect a room filled past bursting and hot as hades even with the AC on high; if it’s anyone else expect an icy room sparsely populated by the reader’s family and friends. I have known writers who got married and had children solely to ensure that they always have an audience of at least two. The magical moment happens on that one fine day when you give the first reading you’ve ever given where there are faces you’ve never seen before in the audience, expectant, waiting to be read to. That’s glorious.

Autograph sessions: an event where writers who aren’t those named above pray that they’re not stuck sitting next to them, twiddling their thumbs while poor Stan Robinson’s signing hand cramps so bad it looks like amputation may be the only remedy.

Then there are panels. These consist of three to six people sitting with microphones behind a big table in front of an audience that often knows as much, if not more, on whatever the topic is than the panellists. One of the panellists acts as moderator. A good moderator will only speak themselves if there’s a lull in the discussion. She’ll make sure all panellists get an equal crack at talking, coaxing the silent and keeping the brakes on the over-effusive. After 15 minutes or so she’ll open it up so the audience can take part, but not take over, unless they turn out to be more interesting than the panellists. Never moderate a panel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or anti-Americanism. Never allow anyone shy or so self-obsessed they can’t shut up moderate a panel.

The best panel I attended at TorCon 3 was on baseball and science fiction. Who knew there was a connection? I attended in my dutiful spouse capacity fully expecting to be bored out of my skull. Instead I learned a lot about baseball, about sf baseball stories, and was able to convey—along with other helpful cricket afficionados on the panel and in the audience—that yes indeed, there is another sport that’s inspired a great deal of fiction and that’s complex, riveting and has many centuries of history. Frequent debates broke out as to what particular moment led to particularly disastrous "World" Series results. Though sadly the only names I recognised were Babe Ruth (baseball’s Don Bradman) and Joe DiMaggio (the guy who married Marilyn Monroe).

The panellists were knowledgeable, entertaining and witty, especially Rick Wilber—what a charming man. Eric M. Van moderated with enthusiasm revved to such a pitch that I worried that he might explode. He didn’t, managing to rein in himself, and include everyone else. Masterfully done. There is now talk afoot of putting together a baseball/cricket panel at WisCon, or next year’s WorldCon in Boston. Panellists would all take a crash course in the sport they are not familiar with and then, I fear, spend the panel explaining to everyone why their sport is better.

Typically, there are weddings at WorldCons, and this year being in Toronto, for the very first time there were same-sex weddings. Lots of very happy campers. A joy to see.

Aside from the official programming there’s also a certain amount of business going on—agents courting writers, writers pursuing editors—but it’s a very small part of proceedings. The dread truth is that most WorldCon attendees do very little business and rarely go to more than a handful of panels/readings etc, just the ones they or their family and friends are on. Most of us go to sf conventions to hang out with all those friends we only ever get to see at conventions, to make more friends (who we forlornly hope we’ll be able to remember when we run into them at the next convention), to attend all the parties with their bucketloads of free food and booze and if we’re very lucky hear Connie Willis telling stories. As is amply demonstrated in these photographs and these and these. The advent of the digital camera is a sad, sad thing. Stop already, people!

The big night of a WorldCon for everyone I know is the Hugo Awards night. But in keeping with the many-different-cons-within-a-con the costumers have their own night: the Masquerade where they get to show off their costumes—many of them jaw-droppingly incredible—and win prizes. For the filkers the whole convention is one continuous big night, where they sing their lungs out unendingly. Apparently many have learned how to sign solely to get them through the voiceless days that follow.

The Hugo Awards are given out once a year for different categories of fiction (short story, novelette, novella, novel); professional (editor, artist, semi-prozine and related book: usually non-fiction about sf or sf art books); and fan (fanzine, fan writer, fan artist). They are the sf award that has the biggest impact on sales.

The award itself is a great big rocket ship and everyone I know wants one. If you are merely nominated (and, as we all know, just being nominated is an honour) you get a wee little rocket ship pin. This year they were gold for the fiftieth anniversary of the Hugo Awards. I’m here to tell you that a little gold rocket ship is dead cool (especially when your friends only have the lame silver version) and they’ll be prying mine from my cold dead fingers.

Some of us were nominated and all of us had opinions about who should and who would win (frequently not the same thing). We also enjoyed casting judgement on the performance of the toastmaster (this year, Spider Robinson) and the various acceptance speeches. Spider Robinson was fabulous, opening proceedings with clever filk versions of "Live and Let Die" (Mote in God’s Eye) and "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" (fifty ways to lose a hugo—I missed the verse about having a university press book). Jane Espenson accepting for her Buffy script was utterly charming though in truth just showing up would have charmed us. Most Hollywood types nominated for a Hugo haven’t a clue what it is and certainly don’t attend.

I adored George R. R. Martin torturing the best novel nominees with a witty though long (and if you’re waiting to find out if you’ve won an award—a half-second delay is too long) account of his own Hugo wins, lamenting that he had never won the Big One (best novel) only little ones (short story, novelette, novella). One day, I’m sure, he’ll get the full set.

The win that made me happiest was Emily Pohl-Weary winning for completing her grandmother, Judy Merril’s memoirs Better to Have Loved. Emily’s lovely and I happen to know that it was a very difficult, fraught task for her. Judith Merril was, of course, a longtime Toronto icon so what better place for her to be posthumously recognised?

I’m not usually a fan of WorldCons: too big, too hard to find your friends (hello, Elisabeth? Were you really there?), but I loved TorCon 3 and this despite the chaotic organisation—whereabouts and times of programming events changed hourly, gatekeepers zealously checking badges managed to exclude some big name writers like Pat Cadigan and Nalo Hopkinson—I guess I’m just a fan of chaos. Science fiction cons do chaos beautifully.

New York City, 4 September 2003

Ten Things Folks in the USA Don’t Know About Australia

1. Errol Flynn is Australian (yes, I know he’s dead). How do you guys all manage not to know that? The debauchery, rabble rousing and general larrikinism were all learned in Australia; the Nazism and other vile habits he picked up later. Most likely in London, though Hollywood will have helped. Mel Gibson was born in New York (state not city, thanks Josh) and Russell Crowe in New Zealand. Neither of them are our fault.

2. We don’t have the death penalty and we do have free universal health care. Just like every other first-world country, except the USA.

3. Australia is not nearly as religious as the USA and thank God for that (sorry, couldn’t resist). If you mention that you are an atheist there’s little risk of anyone keeling over in shock. We’ve had prime ministers who were completely open about not believing in god. Weirdo fundamentalist lunatics have no political power or influence in Australia. Unless you include this Queensland sect whose name I can’t remember who claimed they control the prime minister with their powerful mind rays. Maybe they do. It would explain a lot.

4. New Zealand is our Canada and Indonesia our Mexico. And Australia is the same size as mainland USA.

5. Sport is the main religion, and a very well-funded one too. Every medal we won at the Sydney Olympics cost several squillion gazillion Australian dollars. And why not? Who needs better hospitals? Or no child living in poverty? Cricket is the main religion and soap opera in the country. Thank you, Shane Warne. I’m not sure how a country can claim to be civilized without cricket. Or for that matter, without Shane Warne.

6. Australia is as racist/homophobic/sexist/ageist/jingoistic etc. as the USA.

7. How is it that the one thing you all think you know about us is our film actors? All those famous Australian movie stars and directors you’ve heard of—New Zealanders—every last one of them (except Errol Flynn).

8. 99.94% of us live in cities, not in the bush. (Or is that Don Bradman’s career batting average? Whatever.) Australia is the most urbanised country in the world. Forget about the Crocodile Hunter already.

9. Miles Franklin, Tracy Moffat and Howard Florey are Australians. Not that you lot would care. You haven’t heard of them, have you?

10. We do not have cute accents. You are confused. That would be the Irish and Jamaicans, not us.

New York City, 26 August 2003

Blackout in New York City

Thursday 14 August 2003: Scott was not having the best day and he was beginning to feel conspired against. We got home just after 4pm feeling hot and tired. Scott turned the fan on. It sputtered pathetically into action, slow and half-arsed.

"Great, now the fan’s broken too."

In the bathroom the lights were so dim the filaments were visible.

"Brown out," said Scott.

I was sitting with my laptop watching every mail browser spin looking for a signal. At the same time we both had the genius idea of looking out the window. No traffic lights. No power on anywhere. People were starting to leave the restaurants and stores nearby. Sirens blared (though, this being NYC, not noticeably more than usual).

The revelation that it wasn’t just us transformed Scott’s mood instantly. He went into action, finding his battery-operated short-wave radio:

WNYC reports that the power’s out in all five boroughs and parts of New Jersey and Westchester county. A million people—foot traffic—are on the Brooklyn Bridge. I try to imagine this. Apparently if everyone leaves all the buildings in Midtown and downtown during the day, there isn’t enough room for them all on the streets. It doesn’t look very busy here in the East Village.

4:40PM: I have enough battery for an hour on my computer. Enough time to start this musing, but not really enough to do any of my paid writing work.

Scott says we have to go get supplies in case the blackout lasts for a while. I think that’s silly, but don’t say so. It’s true that there’s very little food in the house. We just got back from a week in Dallas. The day before we left our fridge died. So it stands unplugged and completely empty in our kitchen.

On the way down we check the (tiny as a matchbox, built in 1912) lift. No-one is trapped in it. I very rarely ride in it myself on account of it being tiny as a matchbox and built in 1912.

The girls who were moving in on the 3rd floor are grateful to be told what’s going on.

"Does this happen a lot?" they ask. They are sweet and southern and brand new to the city.

"No," we assure them.

"Last one was 1977," says Scott. This is news to me. Though by the end of the day I know all about the great blackouts of 1965 and 1977.

They don’t look very convinced.

There isn’t an unusual amount of people on the streets. The supermarket across the way is dark and shut up. But most of the small shops have stayed open. The organic food store on our block is open. There’s only one other customer. It’s incredible how dark it is, even in broad daylight. We stumble around, wishing we’d brought a torch, and eventually find water and food.

By the time we get to the counter, there’s a line and more people are coming in. The woman behind the counter has to add up the totals by hand. It takes time. We learn that the power is out in Detroit and parts of Canada too.

Everyone who comes in asks about water, matches, candles, torches, batteries. Being a health food store they have no matches, torches, batteries.

On the way back up the stairs the woman from the floor above tells us that the Niagara power grid went out and that they’re sure it wasn’t terrorists. She seems very relieved. Terrorism hadn’t occurred to me. Probably because I wasn’t here for 11 September 2001 (though my mother later suggests that maybe it’s because I’ve been through blackouts in Sydney and elsewhere, but then who the hell hasn’t?).

5:15pm: After an hour of blackout the traffic is backed up along Second Avenue. There’s music playing and more people out on the street than on a Saturday night. Civilian volunteers have declared themselves traffic conductors and stand at most of the big intersections, trying to keep the box clear, and the traffic moving as much as it can. Scott realises we don’t have C batteries for our Maglite torch and runs out to get them while I fill every container in the house, which sadly is not many, with water. It occurs to me that the Liberty game against Houston might not be on. (Later I discover it had been cancelled at 5pm.)

Scott returns with apples and batteries. There are now queues out on to the footpath. Scott got the last C batteries in the store. When he asked for matches or a lighter the guy behind the counter shook his head, then simply gave Scott his own lighter. A woman came in asking for matches or a lighter just after this transaction. She had an unlit cigarette in her hand and looked quite desperate. Scott played gentleman and lit it for her.

There’s gridlock on Second Ave as far as I can see from the roof. Some of the vehicles are overflowing with passengers, the back of pickup trucks are full. It looks like the end of the world with people fleeing the city however they can. A very slow exodus: it takes about forty minutes for a vehicle to get from Sixth Street to Houston. Normally this would take no longer than forty seconds.

Every two blocks or so you can see the glitter of lights from emergency vehicles. Up above dozens of helicopters hover like dragonflies over Manhattan.

The stream of pedestrian traffic is so swollen that people are walking on the street as well as the footpath. Many are walking in suits, their ties pulled loose, jackets draped over arms. Several of the women hobble along in high heels.

The people who work at Global 33, one of the bars on Second, have put out a table and are handing out free water in plastic cups to passersby. They seem to be letting people use their bathroom too. They do this for several hours.

7:30PM: (when the Liberty versus Houston game would’ve started) we’re still up on the roof watching and talking to neighbours who work up in Midtown. They tell us about the incredible crush on the street once they’d made it down the stairs of their tall office buildings.

Now I’m thinking about all the people trapped in the subway system, and in elevators. I hope all the hospitals have generators.

We’ve been able to phone Sydney and Dallas to leave messages and talk to our families, letting them know we’re fine and all stocked up and ready for the duration. I narrowly stopped myself from putting on a Winston Churchill voice as I said this. When we try again later, we can’t phone anyone outside the city.

We go out on to the streets to check out three regular haunts: Counter, Veloce and Ike’s. First Avenue is much much quieter than Second. Hardly any cars. The people all seem to be locals. No-one looks frazzled or desperate to get home. At Counter they let us in, but only because they know us. They’re operating by candlelight, trying to close before dark. The place looks eerily beautiful.

The bartender points out that his Maglight is bigger than mine. I am plunged into a soul-crushing sadness for about .0004 of a second. We wish them luck closing before the sun sets completely (at this point they have maybe twenty minutes) and reject their offer of a free drink. They look exhausted.

All the cross streets are full of locals who, like us, are finding this more of an adventure than a trial. Getting across Second Ave, despite the crush of pedestrians, is not too bad. The vehicle traffic is not moving at all.

Veloce has burst out onto the street. People have dragged their stools onto the footpath and are chatting with the weary passsersby struggling to get home, many of whom momentarily give up the struggle and join the Veloce crowd, drinking the still-cold drinks while they last.

Veloce is long and narrow. Stools on one side face the bar and on the other side face a ledge wide enough for drinks and plates. There are mirrors on both walls that somehow manage to make the place look bigger than it is.

Without fans or aircon it’s hot, so most people are drinking on the street. Like Counter the place is transformed by candle light into something almost magical. Everyone looks young and happy. Though I don’t think the normally calm, cool bartender appreciates the magic. He has stripped down from his usual attire of natty Italian suit and is without jacket or tie. He looks hot and frazzled and as more and more people come in his frazzlement grows. I wish there was something I could do to help.

We pull up two stools at the bar, not too far from the entrance and the bartender gives us the coldest drinks he has. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted although normally I only like much heavier beers. It’s SO icy cold that momentarily my mouth is numb but happy. Very happy.

I thank the owner for staying open and he grins. "What else are you going to do?"

He tells us that they’d just gotten their supplies for the weekend. Thursday is the typical supply day for restaurants. The sushi places are doing it bad, he says. All that fish. They’re coping by staying open and slashing their prices, desperately trying to get rid of as much seafood as they can. The only fish Veloce serves is preserved anchovies. They do have a lot of meat and cheese. The cheese he’s not too worried about, but the meat . . . "This better not last more than a day or two."

Even better than the cold cold beer: Veloce is serving food. We’re starving. We devour two eggplant tramezini in seconds. Superb. (At least I think they are—there’s only momentary contact with my tastebuds.)

A woman next to us looks lonely and annoyed. Scott asks her what her story is. She’s been trying to contact her friend who lives round the corner, but her mobile isn’t working, and the buzzer to his apartment uses electricity. Scott’s mobile still has a signal, so she uses that, and her friend joins us at Veloce. Another happy story in the dark city.

Second Ave is still ridiculously packed, so instead of heading south to Ike’s we head east.

Tompkin Square Park is overflowing with people. The party is in full swing. The park is so unbelievably dark we can’t see each other. We hold hands to avoid being separated. About 10 metres from us Scott recognises an Aussie accent.

"Are you Australian?" I call out.

"Too right," comes the reply.

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" I start the chant.

"Oi! Oi! Oi!" They complete it. We all laugh. Sounds like there are at least six of them.

Further into the park a bonfire blazes in a metal trash can, surrounded by a big crowd. We move closer to see what’s going on. Tompkin Square Park Olympics: the trash-can-with-bonfire leaping event. One boy sails over with half a metre to spare. His shirt flies up revealing a very cut stomach. Everyone screams and claps and stomps.

Elsewhere in the park there’s a percussion band. I’m pretty sure I hear glockenspeils. Lots of people are sitting on blankets, laughing, talking and only occasionally making out. In the distance you can hear fireworks. New York City in a blackout is fabulous. (But then I wasn’t stuck at the top of a ferris wheel in Toys R Us, or in a lift, or down in the subway.)

People are promenading with glow sticks, kerosene lamps, high-tech glowing lamps and torches. I start saying, "Happy Black-out" to people we pass. They all laugh.

Most of the bars in the area are open and candle lit. At Vazak’s we get carded. The lighting is pretty bad. We don’t have ID so the bouncer won’t let us in. We point out that in addition to us being a million years older than twenty-one, they’re unlikely to be busted on a blackout night. After all, people everywhere are flouting the no-smoking-in-bars law. He points to the cop car parked outside. The cops are standing around having friendly chats with people holding beer bottles. Drinking alcohol on the streets of NYC is illegal. These cops do not look like they’re going to bust the law-breakers or come into Vazak’s demanding to see everyone’s ID. But the bouncer at Vazak’s remains adamant.

On the way to Ike’s we come across people sitting on their stoop dripping glow sticks from every limb. The sticks are left over from a huge party. They immediately hand us each a glow stick of our very own. We wear them on our wrists. We wish them a happy blackout too.

The glow sticks are excellently bright and we feel less vulnerable to being hit by a car. Not that it’s that likely, everyone is driving amazingly slow and cautious.

Ike’s is full. One of the owners treats us to beers and vodka shots. They’re not serving food. When the blackout hit they packed all the meats with lots of ice into the freezers and then locked them. "Should keep them for a few days," he says. "I can’t imagine we’ll have power out for longer than that."

Back home those glow sticks continue to earn their way. We only have the one torch, but we can see well enough by the glow sticks for most things. Still can’t phone anyone outside New York City. Nor can we contact any of our friends in NYC. Phones ring out (answering machines not working) and we’ve lost mobile phone coverage.

We go back up on to the roof. Mars is up and glowing orange. It’s just as bright as when we saw it outside Dallas a few days ago. Quite a few of our neighbours are up there too. Some with friends staying the night who’ve given up the fight to get back to Brooklyn or New Jersey or where ever. Nobody believes the blackout will last much longer. At the very least we expect the power to be back on in the morning.

In two different places fireworks go off. Apparently there are firework caches all over the city. And a good thing too. What a waste of a blackout night if there’d been no fireworks.

Seeing only dark silhouettes of the Empire and Chrysler buildings is so bizarre, though the scene is not as end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it as I had expected. There’s a glow to the west, clearly New Jersey is back on and there’s a sprinkling of buildings in Manhattan with some lights on. Mostly down in the Financial District, but hospitals as well. There are more stars than usual but not so many that we can’t count them. This is disappointing and blows Scott’s theory that the whole blackout was a scheme of amateur astronomers determined to see the full glory of Mars while it’s at its closest to the Earth for the next zillion years.

Friday 15 August 2003, 8:30AM: I had expected the power to be on. It’s not. Still can’t phone anywhere other than New York City. The traffic outside is like on a slow Sunday. Almost everything’s closed.

When Scott wakes we’ll go for a wander, hoping to get breakfast somewhere. Last night most restaurants were doing good business. I guess we’re not the only ones with not a lot of food at home. Surely some cafes and restaurants will take pity on us poorly-stocked Manhattanites and provide us with breakfast too?

Right now I’m annoyed neither of us is a survivalist. What were we thinking not having a pantry bursting with enormous supplies of water and plenty of bottled, tinned and dried food?

While Scott sleeps I do an inventory:

Dried lentils, brown & jasmine rice, a head of garlic, raw peanuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, soy sauce, fish sauce, salted duck egggs, tin of pineapple, Carr’s Water Biscuits, Vegemite, apples, dried pasta, jar of pasta sauce.

There’s enough for the two of us for a couple of days. I guess I could also make a pineapple and garlic stir fry. I feel very resourceful and virtuous just planning the meals that I may not cook.

WNYC says there’s power above 52nd street. It’s slowly coming on all over the city. They say it will all be on by Monday morning. Hmmmm. It’ll be in the 30s today. This is going to be less fun, I suspect, than last night. At least we’re not in Cleveland where they don’t have water.

I have maybe twenty minutes battery left on my computer, which I use up with the crucially important task of writing this musing. I contemplate continuing with paper and pen. Shudder! Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Scott wakes up and we go foraging for the drug to which Scott is shakingly addicted: coffee. He asks a girl clutching a disposable coffee cup where she got it. Place up the street has a generator. The queue goes out the front door. An MTV camera crew interviews the manager; a print media journalist interviews the customers. I think about all the places around the world that never have a regular supply of electricity. Scott says the coffee is terrible.

We run into a couple of people we know, neither of whom has water in their building. Not just Cleveland then. Other than that they seem to be doing fine. Everyone’s Thursday was a blast, but today is getting wearing.

The farmers’ market at Union Square is up and running. The crowds are much bigger than usual. I get everything I need for several stir-frys. When we get home we feast on a tinned pineapple, onion, green & yellow capsicum, yellow wax beans and peanut stir-fry, accompanied by rice and steamed salted duck egg. It’s better than it sounds.

Walking around the East Village there are open fire hydrants on almost every cross streeet. Dozens of kids run in and out of the water getting drenched and spraying their less-anxious-to-get-wet friends. They cack themselves as cars drive past and get an unexpected wash.

The parks are full of people reading, hanging out, being very chill. One woman gives us her copy of The New York Times which was sold out everywhere we tried. It’s full of stories of how people survived (or in two cases, didn’t) the blackout. All about how well NYC has behaved, particularly compared to 1977. I wonder if other blackout cities are congratulating themselves on not being populated by arseholes.

Our friend Mike, we found out later, spent the day roller-blading around the city. Deb went in to help at the hospital where she normally works, though she had time off to study for her boards next week. For twenty minutes the hospital lost their generator and had to do everything by hand. There were no casualties. Kathleen saw people emerging from subway grates looking utterly miserable. Other friends cheated and went to stay with friends and relatives with power in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

I finally get through on the phone to friends, but they are all above 52nd Street and have power. Have a lovely long conversation with Chip, catching up and generally killing time. He observes several times that other than having no email access it isn’t too bad. "At least the fans are working now."

"Mine aren’t!"

"Oh, right," says Chip. "I forgot."

6PM: The lights come on above 14th Street. Gazing up First Avenue we see the green, red, and yellow of traffic lights, the distinctly different yellow glow of the mercury vapour street lights. At 14th Street the south side is dark, the north brilliantly lit, with garish advertising. It is an assault to the eyes. Very glary and scary.

We cross back to the dark zone, not wanting to eat a meal in electric land. We buy a slice of pizza from Stromboli’s and eat it walking along the unlit glory of Seventh Street. We decide to go back up on the roof and see the spectacle of the East Village in the dark while the rest of the city shines.

9PM: While we are still in our apartment, Scott says, "What the hell is that?"

Our cable modem is flickering. Outside people start screaming. Cars honk their horns. It’s like New Year’s Eve. Scott and I whoop, though moments before we’d been rabbiting on about how much we enjoyed the darkness and how everything above 14th Street was vile.

The mobile has a signal again. We meet Mike and Kathleen at Ike’s and talk about our 29 hours without power. Mostly good experiences, even those without water, but we wouldn’t have been thrilled had it gone on too much longer.

"What would this have been like," Kathleen wonders, "if it had happened before September 11?"

New York City, 17 August 2003

People in NYC are Very Polite

As a non-resident, non-Usian, it felt very weird to be standing on the corner of Second Ave and 10th Street handing out voter registration cards. One of the first people I asked, "Are you registered to vote in New York City?" answered in a strong London accent, "Nope, I’m disenfranchised here."

"Me too," I said. (Not that I think I should have the vote, given my non-resident status.)

He cracked up.

It was a breezy warm Sunday afternoon. Breezy is probably an understatement, there were gusts big enough to send all the flyers, voter rego cards and the rocks holding them down, soaring off our table. Every time it happened people helped the four of us—Daniel, Elena, Scott and me—on our brief scavenger hunts, handing them back, or if they wanted to register, keeping them.

No-one was rude to any of us. Not one person. The worst I got was a few folk walking past without responding (and since I’ve marched past people handing out bits of paper it was hard to be offended).

I’ve never done anything like this before. I confess I did have several moments of feeling like the heroine of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit handing out religious tracts and saying, "Excuse me, but can I interest you in the love of Jesus?" But I got over it pretty quickly because people were so darn polite and enthusiastic about what I was doing.

Mostly people proudly declared that they were registered to vote, or that they were foreigners and couldn’t, or smiled and said no thanks before they’d even heard the question.

One woman I asked, dressed expensively (lots of gold jewellery and crisp white linen) with a deep tan, leading two beautifully groomed german shepherds, gave me a broad smile and said, "Nope, I’m not registered."

"Would you like to be?" I said, smiling winningly and proffering a registration card.

"Nope," she said with an even bigger smile. "I wouldn’t."

There were quite a few people who wanted to talk. One young man expressed interest in my Freddie Baer James Tiptree Jr. 12th Annual Award T-shirt. Claiming it was the best T-shirt he’d ever seen and that he really had to have one. He made me spell Freddie’s name several times, clearly determined to commit it to memory. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they were all sold out this year—as they are every year—had been within hours of becoming available at this year’s WisCon.

One woman from the Dominican Republic told me proudly that the first thing she’d done when she got her US citizenship was register to vote. She’d voted in every single election, always Democrat. She would never, ever, ever vote Republican because they were bad people and George W. Bush was the baddest of them all. She took two cards from me for her sister’s children and told me that I was a very good person.

Two old men were very keen on having the "George W. Bush is a very bad man" conversation. One of them patted me on the shoulder and gave me a big thumbs up. "Good job, girl, good job." They both walked off, turning back once to smile and wave.

One man walking by, wheeling his beat-up bicycle, looked me up and down and declaimed: "I’d eat dolphin if I could. I love sushi." And kept right on going. Talk about your single-issue voters.

Elena got a very middle-of-the-road looking guy dressed in a going-to-work-middle-management kind of a suit (on a Sunday?) who talked to her for ten minutes, earnestly explaining how the government is controlling everyone electronically and that it all starts with the electronic voting booths. Neither Scott nor Daniel attracted any nutters.

Another woman (proudly registered) was looking for her friend who she described as tall, thin, dark and beautiful who was the choir mistress for St Mark’s Church (the church I was standing in front of). It was also a pretty good description of the woman herself (except for the tall bit). Though saying, "You mean, like you?" seemed somehow sleazy so I refrained. I did say I’d keep an eye out on account of I was already doing that. The woman ended up walking around the block several times, each time stopping to chat and commend us on our efforts, searching for her friend or an entrance to the church, and finding neither.

I learned pretty quickly that I would be a shithouse profiler. As people approached I’d check out what they were wearing, how they were dressed, how old they were, and have a little bet with myself about whether they’d talk to me or not. I was mostly wrong. I figured well-dressed young nightclubber types would just zip past. Wrong. They took more voter regos than any other group. Almost all of them saying, "Oh yeah, just moved here. I’ve been meaning to do that. Thanks." They also seemed to be the group most excited by the postage-paid aspect of the card. "You mean I just fill it out and pop it in the mail box? Cool."

The only groups that consistently ignored me were headphone wearers and those heavily burdened with shopping bags. Though one man weighed down with several bags and walking very tentatively, said that yes he was registered and he’d like to pick up a couple of cards for some friends of his but he couldn’t take them now cause he was on the way to the hospital where his niece had been born (Maria Lilly) and that he had a big boil on his you-know-where but he’d be back to collect the cards after he’d made the visit. He also said that I was doing a fabulous thing. "Everyone should be registered to vote."

By the end of the three hours I was feeling very saintly. I got many thumbs ups and "well-dones". I’d been told by lots of registered voters to keep up the good work, and that people like me were what made America great (okay, only one person said that—didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t actually a US citizen).

I was saddest when I asked a young man dressed in a Jason Kidd jersey with an anchor tattoo on his forearm if he was registered. "I’ve got three felony convictions," he told me. "I’m not allowed to vote."

I was proudest of the cards I handed to two people who said they’d never voted before but had decided they really had to in the next election. One of them, a young woman, said that my being there to give her the card was a sign.

I enjoyed handing out the cards far more than I had imagined and walked home in an excellent mood, feeling like I had achieved something important. Even if we end up with the same people in power for the next four years, at least I’d done something.

New York City, 27 July 2003

Sydney versus New York City

Okay, people endlessly ask me about the differences between these two cities and which one I like best. Up front I have to say, hello? Born and bred in Sydney! What do you think I’m going to say? But I’m a reasonable person, I can give an actual opinion unswayed by the fact that me, my mother, my father, and my sister were all born in the one hospital (which no longer exists, alas) in inner-city Sydney. I can forget the fact that my whole family and many of my friends are there, that I tasted good whisky for the first time there, read the majority of my favourite books, my favourite movies, did the majority of my schooling there, including high school, my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and that there is no city in the world that I know as well as I know Sydney, I can overlook all of that, and give a fair assessment of the differences between the two cities.

Sydney  New York City
The Weather
The FoodThe BarsThe Wildlife

Pretty much perfect. I am a total wimp. Can’t stand the cold. One time I looked up the cities around the world that rarely drop below 10C (55F) in winter and rarely get above 35C (95F) in summer. And guess what? Sydney was bang on. The winters are mild and gorgeous with a tonne of sunlight. The summers are deliciously hot with a fabulous fresh southerly wind to cool you down at the end of the day. There really isn’t an autumn or a spring in Sydney (cause why bother?). The flowers are in bloom all year round.

Almost total crap. Winters are foul and involve snow (uggh). It NEVER snows in Sydney. Summers are vile. Intense heat with no relief at all (except for this year when the winter just kept on going, until one day it was suddenly replaced by vile hot humid summer). NYC has no cooling winds. Spring is damp and chilly. Autumn on the other hand is the only reliably excellent season. It’s cool, but by September everyone’s dying for things to get cool. And it’s crisp cool not freeze-your-tits-off cool. The farmer’s market is full of the most amazing apples and tomatoes you ever tasted. The trees all change colour. Spectacular. Beautiful. Compensates for the vilely cold days and the stinky hot ones. A NYC autumn is great for wearing (Sydney) winter coats.

Superb. (Except for Mexican, NEVER eat Mexican in Sydney.) Tetsuya’s, Rockpool, Boathouse. I could go on and on. But the fabulous thing about Sydney is that it’s not just the over-the-top high end places that are amazing. There’s places like Singapore Gourmet too. Where two of you can stuff your face for less than AU$15 (US$10). There are noodle joints in chinatown where you can stuff yourselves for less than AU$10 (US$7). (And you don’t have to tip.) The Thai food is so good it will make you weep and I’m not just talking about Sailor’s Thai. The fruits. Oh my God! In summer there’s rambutans and mangosteens and pineapples and mangoes and longans and lychees and everything that makes a person smile. In winter there’s custard apples. All year round you can get sugar bananas. The fruit and veg in Sydney is just amazing. I could go on and on and on.

 

Also superb. (Except for Thai, NEVER eat Thai in NYC.) I’m just a block from Frank’s, and Supper, Prune, and The Tasting Room are pretty damn close too. There are more excellent vegetarian restaurants than anywhere else on the planet (my current favourite—Counter). Had my first raw food restaurant experience here—way richer than I had expected. Good. Possibly addictively so. Then there’s the joys of cheap Mexican, like San Loco. Cheap Ukrainian. There’s fabulous Ethiopian, Venezuelan, Indian and Korean. There’s organic produce everywhere you look. A wonderful farmers’ market at Union Square five times a week. You can get almost anything you want (if you’ve got the money for it) from caviar to arugula to Reese’s Peanut butter cups (something you can’t easily find in Sydney). There’s even a peanut butter restaurant.

Sydney has more of a pub culture than a bar one. There are lots of fab pubs that I like a lot, but none of them makes me as happy as my favourite bars in NYC. I know, I know, I’m a hideous traitor. Would it make things better if I say that James Squire Amber Ale is way way way better than any American beer? Comparisons are so invidious. Okay, how about: There’s no NYC equivalent to the humble RSL or Lawn Bowls Club where you can buy four drinks with a ten dollar (Aussie) note and be given change that you’re not expected to hand straight back as a tip (and you have the added pleasure—if you’re a bloke—of having the old codgers hiss at you to take your hat off, "Show some respect, son!"). Plus you get to play lawn bowls. There’s no where to play lawn bowls in NYC.

 

I can admit it when NYC is way ahead. And when it comes to bars NYC wins hands down. Not really a contest. Though it makes me sad to say it, the bars in NYC piss all over those in Sydney. The majority of bartenders know how to make every cocktail under the sun. There are bars with superb food. There is no Sydney equivalent to Veloce (great Italian wine and fabulous panini), to Decibel (an unbelievable number of different sakes, not to mention great dumplings, edamame and any other Japanese snack food you can think of), to any of the hundreds of other bars I could name.

Sydney wins. Our birds are more beautiful: rainbow lorikeets, sulphur-crested cockatoos, the unbelievably beautiful black cockatoos. Hell, even pesky myena birds are better looking than any NYC bird. Flying foxes, possums, penguins, lizards, skinks, foxes (okay they’re evil and bad—but they don’t have them in NYC). Sharks. Tropical fish. We win! We win!

 

Birds: seagulls, sparrows, pigeons. That’s right, they only have the crap birds. There are squirrels, but who cares? They’re just rats in drag. They got rats out of drag too. But we got those in Sydney too. Tougher and bigger. NYC is very animally deprived. Their cockroaches are small and can’t even fly.
Regionalism

I could crap on about how foul the Eastern Suburbs are, the North Shore, Sutherland Shire, but it would be sheer prejudice. I’m a firm believer you have to live in a place for a while before you have the right to say it sucks. I don’t always follow that precept, but, hey, this is written down, not bitching with my mates. I’ve only ever lived in the inner-city. Places like Annandale, Camperdown, Chippendale, Newtown, Stanmore. There are differences between them but they’re not huge. What would I know about Chatswood or Vaucluse or Sylvania Waters? I’m sure they’re all lovely.

 

I’ve covered a much bigger area with the places I’ve lived in New York City than I have in Sydney. Two boroughs: Manhattan and Brooklyn. Six different neighbourhoods: Hell’s Kitchen, Upper West Side, Cobble Hill, Lower East Side, East Village and Washington Heights. In Manhattan I’ve lived all the way down on Houston and as far up as 188th Street. The only one I didn’t enjoy was Hell’s Kitchen and with such an excellent name I really tried to like it.

Parochialism

Possibly the most parochial city in Australia. Definitely the most hated. There’s way more to Australia than just Sydney. But neither is it the seat of all corruption, vice, crassness and self-infatuation. ("And totally forgets the rest of the country exists—especially the western third—that little bit where your friend Helen lives".)*

 

Possibly the most parochial city in the USA. Definitely the most hated. There’s way more to the USA than just New York City. But neither is it the seat of all corruption, vice, crassness and self-infatuation. (I’ve many friends in the USA who live outside NYC—I’m sure they would agree that the big apple "totally forgets the rest of the country exists".)
Roof tops

When I was twelve or thirteen, me and my friend Michal climbed up onto the roof of my parents’ house in Annandale. I think we had recently seen To Catch a Thief and had visions of fleet-footed running from roof top to roof top. We ran and leapt, all the time talking a million miles an hour, gossiping about school, exclaiming about the view, and how cool it was to be running around like Cary Grant’s body doubles. We didn’t come across anyone else up there. Just birds. Later that day while Michal and I were at the movies, my parents answered the door many times to complaini
ng neighbours who had not only had to deal with elephant thuds on their roof but could relate loud snatches of twelve-year-olds scintillating conversation which my parents gleefully quoted back at me when I got home. Apparently in the south of France (or on that Hollywood backlot) the noise doesn’t carry quite as much as it does in Sydney.

I had a lot more success up on the roof of various buildings at the University of Sydney (sadly, the access to almost all of them has now been blocked). Up on those roofs the only other people you’d see would be workers toiling endlessly to stop the Main Quad from falling to pieces. There’d always be signs that other non-workers had been there before you: empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, grafitti, yet we never ran into them. The views up there! 360 degrees. The city, Glebe Point Island Bridge, the Harbour Bridge, the harbour. On one of those crystalline, perfect days when the air is so clear everything stands out in sharp relief you could see all the way to the Blue Mountains. So beautiful. I miss home. Sometimes October seems a very long way away.

New York rooftops are a whole other world. You can live in an apartment block right smack dab in the middle of town and find escape by climbing the stairs and going out onto the roof. This year we watched the Fourth of July fireworks from a friend’s rooftop in Brooklyn (I love Brooklyn). We sat up there drinking champagne, oohing and ahing the fireworks from the four barges in the East River with their Manhattan skyline backdrop, the Empire State Building, the Chrsyler. There was a crescent moon. It was spectacular. Though confusing: I kept wanting to yell "Happy New Year!" I mean hot weather, champagne, fireworks, what else could it mean? (Though, naturally, Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks are better.)

Up on the roof of our eight-story building you can see the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings (My verdict? Chrysler prettier by day, Empire State by night). We’re taller than most of the buildings close by. So we can look down at all the other people on the surrounding roofs, sunbaking, escaping the heat, reading, hanging out with their mates, drinking a beer or two at the end of the day. You can see water towers, and rooftop gardens stretching in all directions. Some looking like minature rain forests, elaborate and expensive, and clearly employing several gardeners, others simply a matter of a few plants in pots. The light, the breeze, everything is different up there. There’s so much sky. Down on the ground in Manhattan you can be forgiven for forgetting there’s a sky at all. For having no idea about the spectacular sunsets. Up on the roof everything’s glorious.

Anti-Intellectualism  

I was lucky enough to receive a government-funded Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Fellowship which meant that for three years (think of it!) I had funding to research and write full-time about science fiction in New York City in the forties and fifties. When that fellowship ended the University of Sydney stepped in and continued my funding for another nine months. Both institutions thought my work was important enough to support it. Without that funding I would not have published my first book or have a contract for my second or be very nearly finished a third. It transformed my life and turned me into a real scholar and writer. I could not be more grateful. There are very few countries in the world that have such long-term research fellowships available.

However, when in Sydney, whenever I was at a party or in a situation where the what-do-you-do question came up I would tell the person and once they had grasped the concept of a research fellowship I would get the following response: "Geeze, nice work if you can get it! So you’re telling me the Australian government pays you to sit around and read science fiction novels? Must be nice. I’m so glad my tax money’s being well spent." I’ve never encountered this response anywhere else in the world.

When I first went to university I was so jazzed at the prospect of finally getting to sit in a room full of my peers who were all excited about ideas and writing. At last! I thought. The shock of that first English tutorial. There they were the same people I’d been in high school with. They still couldn’t be arsed doing the readings, they still rolled their eyes when anyone ventured an opinion. There was still only one or, at most, two students in the room (other than me) who’d not only done the reading, but was itching to talk about it. It was pretty much the same throughout my undergraduate degree.

Sydney is full of smart women and men pretending to be dumb, affecting to be more interested in sports than in anything intellectual (as if the two are somehow antithetical. Where did that ridiculous idea come from?) I’ve never heard anyone in Sydney describe themselves as an intellectual without then apologising for it. Sometimes I don’t miss Sydney at all.

 

I know very few people in New York City who are full-time researchers working on their own projects. The PhD students are mostly funded from year to year (though I know some who are funded for only a semester at a time) and that year’s funding does not include the summer months. Australia has a postgraduate allowance that is an untaxed stipend that runs for three years with the option, if you need it, of a six month extension (in Australia PhD programs are thesis only—no course work—so it doesn’t take ten years. The [to my ears] ludicrous notion of All But Dissertation does not exist). You never have to line up summer work. Once you finish your PhD at an American university, there are fellowships available (the majority of them privately endowed). As far as I can tell very very few of them run for more than a year. Let alone the three years of a postdoc, or the five years of the senior ARC fellowships.

However, when in New York City, whenever I was at a party or in a situation where the what-do-you-do question came up I would tell the person and once they had grasped the concept of a research fellowship I would get the following response: "Wow. The Australian government is fully funding your research here? That’s amazing. You must be a hell of a scholar. What an incredible opportunity for you. Can you tell me more about it?"

My friends who went to NYU, Columbia, the New School, Vassar, and other New York universities I’ve forgotten the name of tell tales of all-night phisophical and literary debates amongst ten or twenty of their peers. They talk like these were a regular thing. I have friends in NYC who never went to (or didn’t finish) uni who tell tales of similar evenings. I’ve never met so many interesting and interested autodidacts as I have here. People who’ve read (and understood) Gramsci and Foucault and Judith Butler and Donna Haraway without having been made to. How incredible is that?

I’ve never met anyone in NYC who tried to hide their intelligence. Though I’ve met a tonne who are under the delusion that they’re way, way, way smarter than they actually are. There are lots of intellectuals here who enjoy sports but they don’t feel they have to make a big deal out of it to somehow make up for their being an intellectual.

Swimming Pools

In Sydney there are more swimming pools than there are people. Every person has their own Olympic fifty metre pool. Okay, not really, but everywhere I’ve lived in the city I’ve b
een an easy walk from at least one swimming pool and often two or three. All of them fifty metre. Proper swimming pools.

We also have a tonne of beachside salt water pools. They’re not chlorinated and the water is from the sea—flows in at high tide and flows out at low. (Though never so much that you can’t swim.) They’re completely excellent.

Everyone in Sydney can swim.

 

There are no Olympic swimming pools in New York City. Or those that exist are well hidden on the top of the Trump Tower or underground and only really rich people can go to them. The public swimming pools are crap. You start your lap and after two strokes you’re at the end of the pool, that is if you can get past the thousands of other people, and actually swim a lap.

I’ve met lots of people my own age in New York City who have never learned how to swim. How is that possible? How do they cope? What kind of a no-diving-in-at-the-deep-end, no-middle-of-the-pool-tickle-fights, no-contests-to-see-who-can-dive-the-deepest-longest-bestest, pathetic, miserable life is that?

 

Pedestrian Traffic Lights

In Sydney the little green man signalling that you can walk is on for approximately 10.4 seconds. If you are less than hale and hearty you will not make it across before the little red man appears and starts flashing. If you are hale and hearty the flashing red light means sprint for your life: the cars are about to mow you down.

I have seen the less than hale and hearty stuck at the lights for hours cause 10.4 seconds isn’t even enough time for them to step off the curb. Many of the them stick to driving or simply walk round and round the one block, gazing wistfully across at the other side of the road, so near, yet so so far.

In NYC the signal for walk means that you have time to buy a bagel and pick up a copy of The Village Voice before you begin your leisurely crossing. The flashing light means that perhaps you should skip the bagel, but you can still grab The Voice before crossing. In New York City, well, okay, mostly in Manhattan, the pedestrian is ruler of them all.

Except for the insane bastards car drivers who seem to think they can turn a corner mowing down any pedestrians who happen to be legally crossing on account of that four-hour long walk signal. In Sydney there are arrow signals to prevent such a manoeuvere during the 10.4 seconds pedestrians can legally cross the road. If only there could be some kind of trade-off between the two systems . . .

 

Sexual Harassment on the Street

This is always a difficult one to talk about. There’s still this weird idea that if you mention guys calling out to you in the street, you’re somehow boasting about it. "Hey, I am so damn hot, that this paralytically drunk guy with no teeth lurched across the street, vomited in front of me, and said: ‘Show us your tits, love’. Boy, was I thrilled. Someone out there finds little old me attractive. My day, no, my life, is now complete".

So let’s just skip that crap, eh? You know and I know that most of the time men you’ve never met before in your life feeling free to comment on your appearance (negatively or positively: I’ve had several blokes in Sydney feel moved to tell me how ugly I am) is a pain in the arse. You’ve just lost your favourite jacket, your job, your best friend, and some charming bloke thinks it’s his duty to say, "Give us a smile, darls." Now there’s a killing offence. And even when they don’t say anything there’s that horrible prickling feeling along your skin that you are being looked at, and at any moment someone may be moved to demand you show off your mammaries or perform sexual favours for them.

I hate to say this about my beloved home city but the harassment there is world class. I and my friends have heard more choice misogynist nastinessess in the glowing Emerald City than we’ve ever heard anywhere else in the world. Gross, scary things. Now it could be that that’s because we couldn’t understand what was being yelled in Tel Aviv or Bangkok, or because we lived in Sydney during the peak period of a girl’s life for copping this crap. It’s possible. Let’s just say that none of us, despite being told that one day we would miss the catcalls and invitations to suck a total stranger’s bed flute, are experiencing said sadness as we get older and hear less and less of those oh-so-flattering invitations.

That said an acquaintance of mine met the love of her life, with whom she has now lived happily for more than fifteen years, in a conversation, okay argument, struck up on the streets of Sydney when he offered her a too-graphic compliment and she took him to task for it. He was drunk at the time and still remembers their first meeting with much chagrin. Lucky for him he turned out not to be the man she’d thought on that first encounter.

In the parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan I and my friends live the harassment is much less nasty than Sydney. Like I said this could be because me and my peer group are longer in the tooth than we once were. Maybe the seventeen year olds are copping it every bit as bad as me and my mates did at that age. I hope not. Or maybe we’re more sure of ourselves and less intimidated. I hope so.

That said, there’s a lot more of it. A woman on her own walking down those beautiful New York City footpaths is hit with dazzling smiles, lots of hellos, how’re you doings (yeah, yeah, I know, that’s just friendly), and hears a lot of the kinds of noises people make to attract the attention of their cat. If she responds in any way, the guy will elaborate further with comments on her hair, skin and clothing. (Including the dreaded, "Show us a smile, sweetheart".) Or possibly a suggestion that they indulge in some form of love making together.

New Yorkers altogether seem more inclined to talk to people they don’t know. Especially on the subway, at Madison Square Garden, on the street, in lines for the toilet anywhere at all, and in bars. Women in NYC often comment on the clothing of strangers. Always positively, sometimes a little too positively. One woman on the subway, after telling me that she loved my coat, offered to buy it from me. "Er, no", said I. "Thanks though, quite happy with coat". I have even been so bold as to tell the occasional resplendent stranger in this fine and well-dressed city how fab their coat/hair/tattoo is, though I always keep walking to make it clear it’s a strings-free compliment.

I’ve got nothing against compliments, me. Just, you know, as long as a fella doesn’t think it entitles them to anything. Begad! Did I write that? Could have leapt from the pages of a Georgette Heyer novel. (Not that that would be a bad thing—given that she was one of the twentieth century’s most talented humorists. And invented a whole new genre. I’d love to invent a new genre. Who wouldn’t?)

List subject to growth. Stay tuned.

*My friend, Helen Merrick from sunny Perth, made me add that bit. No comment, says I.

New York City, 22, 28 June and 6, 24, 25 July 2003

Elvis Presley in the Northern Territory

When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka.

Those times are the most vivid memories I have of childhood. I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.

I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: "baba" meaning brother or sister, and "gammon" meaning bullshit (sort of).

The Northern Territory is also where I first discovered Elvis Presley. My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town—nearly microscopic. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.

I would beg money from my parents and play Elvis as much as possible in the short times we would stay there. I was frequently annoyed that they only ever had one beer each and never drank it slowly enough for me to hear more than one or two songs. My favourites back then were "Burning Love" (which I thought of as "Hunka Hunka") and "His Latest Flame".

My second memory is of watching the best Elvis movie ever made, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope that this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other and the adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up.

This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick cause we all loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on an American Indian reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen. Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, and almost everyone was unemployed. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.

The film was such a hit that they played it every night for a week. We all sang along to the songs and when it got to the final scene—there’s a party which turns into a fight which results in the total destruction of the new government-issue cheap and shoddy housing—everyone would get up and yell and mock punch each other. And when Elvis said, "That was one hell of a fight!" we all said it along with him. Even after Stay Away Joe was long gone, doing its rounds of other communities, we’d sing songs and act out scenes from the movie.

Some of us kids really thought Elivs was Native American. I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.

Even now hearing "Burning Love" or "His Latest Flame" or any of his songs I first heard on that Mataranka juke box, I think of sitting with dozens of kids on that basketball court, bum itchy from the gravel, watching Elvis driving around in the car he was selling off piece by piece. I think of turtles and lily root and days that were either wet-hot or dry-hot and flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. And kids who were smart, funny, gorgeous, generous and mean as hell. Kids I haven’t seen since I was eight years old, and already losing my innocence about the difference between being white or black in Australia. A world I haven’t known since I moved back to cities where the houses I live in never fall apart.

That’s my Elvis.

New York City, 19 July 2003

Season Tickets to the New York Liberty

Since 18 May 2003 I’ve been to nine basketball games, which is about as many professional sporting events as I’ve been to in my entire life. Back home on the rare occasions I’d go it was mostly to see the cricket: test cricket.

Going to Madison Square Garden up to three times a week to see the New York Liberty play is a very strange cultural experience for this non-USian. All sport everywhere in the world is about rituals, but I’ve never encountered a sporting event with quite this many.

There’s the orchestrated chants. The most complicated of which goes: "Let’s Go Liberty!" (Might be worth it to employ the Barmy Army to come up with some better ones. Those boys know their chants.)

Then there’s Maddie the Liberty mascot (who I discovered only recently is meant to be a dog). Everyone wants to dance with Maddie (he’s not a bad dancer) or at the very least get a hug or shake hands. So far I’ve not had the honour. Though at the Connecticut game (1 July 2003: the Liberty destroyed them 90 to 64) we brought along a friend, and while I was in the bathroom, Maddie came up, hugged and practically sat in the lap of Scott and George and left just as I returned. No fair.

I’m thinking of writing the ACB to suggest the adoption of a mascot. On second thoughts the 2000 Olympic mascots were pretty dire. Maybe not. Be cool if they could have a Keith Miller cool-dude fifties-guy mascot. (Would love to have a link to show you all how gorgeous Miller was in his day, but couldn’t find one good photo of him online. Not one. Nor could I find a link to the excellent-anecdotes-about-Miller-the-archetypal-larrikin site. What’s the point of the WWW, people? Why do these sites not exist?)

The Liberty have not one, but two, cheerleading squads. The grown-up Torch Patrol who do all sorts of dance routines adorned in fabulous you-must-rush-to-buy-it-for-yourself Liberty gear. On the weekends there’s the Li’l Torches who are really really wee. One is so very tiny you could easily hold her in the palm of your hand. Very cute. Very disturbing.

I like to get to the Garden early to make sure I get my free giveaway (best one so far: a New York Liberty oven mitt. Worst one: a crappy promotional poster for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle—uggh) and so I can start screaming when the Liberty come running out of the tunnel. I love to scream (happy screams). But, hey, who doesn’t? I bet there are heaps of people at sporting events who go solely cause it gives them an excuse to scream their lungs out.

The next highlight is the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner". Singing the national anthem is not de rigeur at sporting events in Australia. Practically the only time you hear it is during medal presentations at the Commonwealth (where you hear it a lot) and the Olympic Games (not so much). I can’t say as how I’ve ever looked forward to hearing "Advance Australia Fair" sung. It’s a funeral dirge with less-than-captivating lyrics that I and most of my fellow Australians seem incapable of remembering beyond the second line. Many have tried to arrange "Advance Australia Fair" to make it more appealing. All attempts have failed.

We Australians made a grave error with our choice of anthem (and, no, "Waltzing Matilda" wouldn’t've cut it either). We should have chosen a song that’s full of unbelievably tricky bits only a trained professional can sing without breaking their vocal chords.

It turns out that the performance of the "Star Spangled Banner" is not just about patriotism. There’s way more to it than that. Singing the US national anthem is a sometimes uncomfortable spectacle (like watching a tight-rope walker). Will the soloist reach the high notes? Will they reach those notes without sounding like crap?

American crowds whistle and stomp for those who hit the scary notes with clarity (often while they’re hitting those notes—just like at a jazz concert). They even applaud those who don’t quite hit them but make a decent effort. Encouragement applause. Failure is indicated by embarrassed silence. No-one says a word. It’s like the audience has decided to forget the whole thing instantly.

After the singing contest the baddies are introduced. And they really are the baddies. There’s hardly ever any polite applause for the visiting team. None of that humbug for your New York crowd. Nope, they boo. Particularly if it’s Lisa Leslie or, even worse, Debbie Black (awesome players both of them). I have to confess that I booed Lisa Leslie too, but in a mellow I-don’t-really-mean-it kind of way. She’s the US Olympic basketballer who was mean to our Lauren Jackson in 2000. All because nice Lauren accidentally pulled one of Lisa’s hair pieces out during a game. An innocent mistake! And, honestly, what’s with wearing hair pieces during a pro basketball match?

Not only do they boo the opposing players but they don’t applaud the good plays they make. This sits oddly with me. I’m used to cricket. If an opposing player does something cool you clap. Maybe not as loud as you would if it were one of your guys, but you still clap because, well, it was a cool shot and coolness must always be applauded. Not in New York City you don’t. Not unless you’re actually supporting the baddies in which case it’s okay. You can expect to be joshed about it, but gently (unless, of course, your side has the audacity to win, then the kidding gets a little less gentle).

My compromise is that I applaud all the Australian players (sadly there aren’t any on the Liberty). I’ve cleared this with the other season ticket holders nearby, who’ve agreed that as long as I’m not busted applauding non-Australian baddies that’s okay. This is a bit tricky when Janeth Arcain is playing. She’s a fabulous Brazilian player who I can’t help but applaud. So I lied. I told them that she used to play in Australia, making her practically Australian, and they’ve agreed I can cheer her too.

Then they introduce the goodies: the NEW YORK LIBERTY!!! (The announcer has an all-caps, many exclamation marks, kind of announcing style.) Lots of screaming at this point and by now almost all of the crowd has filed in, which could be 12,000 or more. That’s a lot of noise. The crowd is very mixed. Black, white, brown. Predominately female, though in a 60/40, not 90/10 kind of a way. Many dykes, and handfuls of old blokes who can’t afford Knicks tickets. There’s lots of dyke and straight families, so you get to see wee little boys and girls running around in Teresa Weatherspoon and Becky Hammon jerseys. A few too many celebrities: Joan Jett, Rosie O’Donnell, Judge Hackett, Matthew Modine, famous retired Liberty (yay Kym Hampton! Sue Wicks!) and Knicks players (nice to see the boys supporting the girls).

We scream ourselves hoarse for the starting line up: Vickie Johnson (shooting guard), Tari Phillips (centre), Crystal Robinson (forward), Teresa Weatherspoon (point guard), and Tamika Whitmore (forward). I scream loudest for my favourite, Tamika Whitmore. She’s kind of a heart-breaking player to love cause she’s so hot and cold. But when she’s good, damn, but she’s good. Plus she looks unbelievably great in her civvies. When other team members are injured they show up resplendent in pastels. Uggh. Tamika’s all black and olive and cool as hell. I love that she always looks serious. If some jerk-off bloke on the street told her to, "Smile, sweetie", I like to think she’d deck him. The rareness of Tamika’s smiles makes them even more excellent.

Everyone cheers Theresa Weatherspoon cause, well, she’s T-Spoon and everyone (who isn’t insane) loves her. Crafty as a fox, leads the league in assists, sets up plays like you wouldn’t believe, and when you least expect it—scores! A legend. (I also like that she’s older than I am.)

After the introductions, all eleven players on the roster throw free T-shirts into the crowd. Including my other favourite, Elena Baranova. Elena is superb and has a very complete game. She’s 196cm (6ft 5in) so naturally she blocks and rebounds, but she can shoot jump shots, even threes! Elena’s been a pro since she was sixteen and has been on the Russian (or Soviet or whatever it was called in any given year) National Team like a gazillion times.

Cause she’s so fab I started wearing my Russian T-shirt (it’s actually a Nom D T-shirt from Dunedin, NZ) with the word RED (KRASNY) printed on it in Russian (pardon the no cyrillic alphabet). One of my Russian friends, Valeria, taught me how to say Elena so I sound Russian. Every game I’d wave my arms and yell "Elena!" and generally try to attract her attention in hopes of scoring a T-shirt from her.

Sadly, the first few times she didn’t hear me and was intent on setting some kind of distance record with her throws. Then, and this is another very cool thing about Madison Square Garden, on the one hand, it’s vast and you’re sitting there as part of a crowd of 15,000, and on the other hand, there’s a strange kind of intimacy. One glorious day Elena heard me, she saw my Russian/NZ T-shirt, and threw a Liberty T in my direction. It arced through the air, headed straight for me. I reached for it, felt it brush my hands, thought I had it, then watched in despair as it sailed through my stupid traitor hands to the people several rows behind. Oh the agony! Oh the unco-ness of me.

Two days later, at the next home game, I tried again. I yelled, I hollered. Elena smiled and threw the T-shirt. A little softer this time. Too soft. It was snagged by a bratty boy two rows in front of me. Elena shrugged and kind of half-smiled.

I had to wait five days for our next attempt. This time Elena came straight up to my end of the court. She gave me a broad smile and made no mistake about throwing it directly to me. At last! I didn’t flub it and no brat leapt up to snatch it from me. Elena grinned and gave me the thumbs up. Third time’s a charm. My new mission (gotta have a mission) is to get her to sign my brand-new courtesy-of-her-fine-throwing-arm fetching green Liberty T-shirt. Then my life will be complete.

Then of course there’s the actual game. Liberty are a heartbreak team. They win most of their games at home (so far this season they’re 6-2). But individually they’re erratic and injury-prone. You never know who (if anyone) is going to be on song. By far the worst moment this year was in the game against Detroit on 27 June 2003. They were on a winning streak; we were not. Becky Hammon, our top scorer this season, came on a few minutes into the first half. She’d barely been in the game a minute, when she made a routine pass that went shockingly wild. I turned to look and she was clutching her right knee and then she was on the ground. It looked really bad. (Tamika helped carry her off.) And, naturally, it was her ACL, so no more Hammon for the rest of the season. I’d love to say we rallied and took that game, but Detroit won by five. It was agonising.

I am less destroyed by our losses than Scott. I guess it’s because I’m still revelling in seeing so many unbelievably strong and amazing women week after week. I know it smacks of hokey seventies feminism (I’m sure you can hear Helen Reddy’s "I am Woman" swelling up in the background) but seeing all those players (the baddies as well as the Liberty), who come in a vast array of sizes: tall, short, really really tall, skinny, strong, big, and even bigger, with their tiny tits, big tits, huge arses, no arses, it really gets to me. It’s so wonderful.

Their ball skills are incredible. Not just on the court, but when they’re standing around during timeouts, twirling the ball idly in their hands, behind their backs, bouncing it off their knees. They walk like women who’ve never been hamstrung by high heels. They stride, they don’t mince. They make me so happy.

When I was growing up my relatives (never my parents) were always telling me that there were operations available to slow my growth. If I was too tall I’d never get a husband (uggh, who the hell would want one?). I was 172.5cm (just under 5ft 8in) when I was twelve. Sadly I’m still 172.5cm. Tamika Whitmore is 188cm (6ft 2in). The tallest woman in the WNBA is Margo Dydek at 218cm (7ft 2in). One of the shortest is Debbie Black at 160cm (5ft 3in). They’re all fabulous players.

I spent most of high school avoiding PE, particularly organised sports. We girls were not much encouraged in sporting pursuits. I didn’t find out until much later that there are quite a few sports that are fun (fencing, climbing, tennis) and that I’m not too foul at them.

I love being part of a huge crowd that loudly and overwhelmingly values these women, that thinks they’re beyond-words awesome, and worth supporting, worth paying money to watch, worth getting obsessed about (in a non-stalkery way).

It’s sublime when the Liberty actually get their shit together like they did against Connecticut on 1 July 2003. For the first time all season, everyone played great, from the lowliest rookie who’s barely had ten minutes all year, through to the stars like Tari Phillips and Crystal Robinson (who, still nursing an ankle sprain, was only allowed to play cause she begged and begged the coach, and ended up being most valuable player). We won by 26. It were poetry, I tell you.

Scott and me, we’ve developed our own Liberty viewing rituals. We’ve gotten to know the other season ticket holders near us. Before each game the folks in our row all discuss how the away games went (mostly badly, the Liberty don’t thrive away from the Garden), who’s injured, who’s back from injury, and who the danger players are on the other side. When the game starts, if there are free seats in our row, we shift across so that we can sit closer to the centre line, and then we all grin sheepishly, and shift back, when people actually show up for those seats.

Even if it’s raining Scott and I walk to and from the game. Full of anticipation on the way there: what will our lucky surprise be? Another bottle jersey? Will the Liberty explode or implode? And on the way back we relive the entire game (though Scott never dwells enough on my T-shirt saga with Elena).

The last ritual of the night is dinner at Counter. Not only does it have fab food and wine and the most comfortable, inviting bar in Manhattan, but the owners, Donna and Deborah, are Liberty fans always eager to be told about the game.

New York City, 8 July 2003

Most Life Changing Reading

Seeing Angela Carter read her story “Peter and the Wolf” on the eve of my twenty-first birthday at the now-destroyed Harold Park Hotel in Glebe, Sydney. In one of the noisiest pubs in the world, you could’ve heard a pin drop. My favourite writer in all the world turned out to be the most wonderful reader in all the world. She was jaw-droppingly extraordinary.

The Hour of the Wolf

I am a dutiful wife and so I agreed to wake up at 3:30AM to accompany Scott to Jim Freund’s crack-of-dawn sf radio show on WBAI.

Here’s Scott’s account:

Because we just haven’t had enough jet lag this year, I agreed to go on Jim Freund’s radio show. It’s called "Hour of the Wolf," and has been going for 32 years, and everyone in sf who comes through NY must do it by tribal law. (Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany used to run it.) It’s on a very cool radio station called WBAI, which is all hip and listener-supported, with neither ads nor government funding. What’s the catch? The show’s on Saturday morning from 5AM-7AM.

Now, because there’s millions of people in range, there is an audience at that time. According to Arbitron (which to me sounds like a bad name for a company in the business of providing data), 30,000 people are listening at 5AM, and about 120,000 are listening at 7AM. The error range is 50,000 plus or minus (Arbitron, indeed), so at the beginning you can be pretty loose, ’cause like 6 people could be listening.

Me and Justine had only about five hours sleep on Thursday night, because of mad drinking and early breakfast date. We figured exhausting ourselves and going to bed early would work. It didn’t. We became hysterical and giggled until about 1AM, and the wakeup call came at 3:30AM, the car at 4:15AM.

But coffee is coffee, and Jim and I had a good time talking about cricket and bisummerality while 0 to 80,000 people were listening, Then I read "Non-Disclosure Agreement" from 5:45AM to 6:30AM, which means most people tuned in in the middle and were like "huh?" Then I pushed Risen Empire and finally read the funny and short "Cat Years" for the last 10 minutes.

But here’s what’s interesting. We got back to the East Village (WBAI is on Wall Street) and went to the local 24-hour diner to eat good Ukranian food and languish in bad Ukranian service. (So painful on no sleep, until we started giggling.) On the way out I saw this skinny black guy with a hat pulled down over his head, his feet all tangled together, alone at 8AM on a Saturday morning scribbling in a notebook. And, of course, it was Tricky, either getting up early or coming down hard. But looking very much the tortured artist, not unlike I was feeling by that point. So although it is vanishingly unlikely, I fantasize now that he was up early to listen to WBAI, and his next album will have an anthropomorphic cat rap on it.

—Scott Westerfeld

I have to confess that I knew almost nothing about "Hour of the Wolf" before this morning’s outing. I’d seen Jim Freund at various readings with large headphones on his head, wincing when people tapped the microphone. Apparently he was recording proceedings for some science fiction radio show but I knew little beyond that.

Turns out "Hour of the Wolf" was founded in 1972 by Margot Adler who now works at NPR on such shows as "All Things Considered". Jim Freund was part of the show right from the beginning. They’ve interviewed almost every writer you can think of in science fiction and fantasy and have produced many sf and fantasy radio plays, including an adaptation of a scene from Lord of the Rings which involved close consultation with J. R. R. Tolkien. Sf scholars should know that they have the majority of the tapes from the show’s history and Jim seemed quite keen to make them available to scholars.

I thought that the whole thing would be utter, utter hell. I’m not an early morning person, don’t like waking up until I have to. But I had a really good time. The two hours zoomed past. What with Jim’s, um, idiosynchratic choice of music, the entertaining conversation between he and Scott and the fact that I kept falling into hallucinatory little micro-sleeps. Jim Freund has a surprisingly excellent radio voice and got Scott talking about many things Australian (always a good thing). Though they both kept mentioning Scott’s newest book The Risen Empire without actually saying what it was about until I prodded (off-air).

I think the six people listening would have really enjoyed themselves.

"Cat Years" is indeed very funny. So too is "Non Disclosure Agreement".

Sadly, I wouldn’t have recognised Tricky. You know, not unless he was performing and there was a sign up that said "Tricky".

I seem to have rashly agreed to be the one behind the mike some time in the future. If that happens maybe we’ll see P. J. Harvey or Me’Shell NdegéOcello at Veselka next time (them I would recognise).

New York City, 21 June 2003

A Reading at KGB

I have ambivalent feelings about attending readings. Don’t get me wrong, I love being read to. Particularly when I’m feeling miserable (say, with the flu, or women’s troubles, or the state of the nation). Listening to someone I care about’s voice transporting me away from my runny nose, my cramps, and little Johnnie Howard, is one of life’s great pleasures. Friends and lovers and, in the olden days, my parents, have indulged me on many occasions and read till their throats went hoarse (a heartfelt thanks to you all).

But readings as public performance, as sales pitch for a writer’s published work, are a different matter. I’ve been to many, many excellent, fabulous, life-changing readings but, still, the thought of attending a reading fills my heart with dread.

Public readings do not involve a comfy bed or sofa, and rarely include pillows or blankets. You cannot call for toilet breaks, or more wine, and you can’t ask for a reread because you really liked that bit, or were (momentarily) distracted. You cannot ask for an ending to be changed if it upset you (to this day I’m happy in the knowledge that Ivanhoe and Rebecca rode off into the sunset together).

Public readings also have the uncomfortable habit of revealing that a writer you have worshipped all your life has an unpleasant voice, or one that sounds just like that jerk Richard, who beat you up every day for a year in fourth grade, or worst of all has a perfectly pleasant voice, but can’t read out loud to save themselves.

They rush past the tragic moments, laugh at their own jokes, pause for applause that isn’t ever going to come, and mispronounce all the words with more than two syllables. They put on different accents for each character, all of them cringingly bad, particularly the Australian accent (note to all North Americans: don’t do it, don’t even try. Meryl Streep couldn’t do an Aussie accent, and neither can you).

No matter how brilliant a writer, you know you will never open one of their books, or hunt down one of their stories again for fear of having their dread voice in your head as you read. They kill their writing stone-cold dead.

That is what fills my heart with horror at the prospect of attending a reading. And there is no reading series I dread more than the KGB Science Fiction Reading Series.

KGB is not a large bar. More than twenty people and you start to find breathing an issue. The seats, if you can get one, are uncomfortable. There is a theatre upstairs that seems to specialise in loud thumping, yelling, running-up-and-down-the-stairs plays on Wednesday nights. Fortunately, the amplification has improved a lot since my first KGB in 2000.

Prior to April 2003 (and halelujah for April 2003!) KGB had smoke from floor to ceiling, even if it was just one person smoking a practically no-tar, no-nicotine menthol cigarette. Even now someone coming in from smoking outside is liable to smoke up the place just by exhaling.

An astute peruser of my website might have noted that I attend every KGB reading I can. Too true. Well spotted. Why attend, you might ask, if it’s so dreadful?

Because the bartender’s a sweetie who’s as quiet as a mouse during the readings, it’s just round the corner from where I live, and, well, okay, I’ve yet to go to a bad reading there.

Last night’s reading was no exception. I arrived fifteen minutes early to find the place packed way beyond capacity and no hope of a seat (perhaps because in their listing of the KGB reading, The Village Voice claims that Kelly Link has written the two best sentences of the last 10 years). There were lots of non-usual suspects which is always heartening.

I made the mistake of slipping out to the loo just before it began, thus ensuring that I spent the first reading in the hallway, sitting on the steps, scrunching out of the way for mad thespians running up and down the stairs, and catching the occasional snippet of reading from inside the bar.

Apparently Holly Black read a fairy tale set in the Phillipines about a girl who was trying to avoid getting rabies from some elves at a night market. Everyone I talked to who actually heard her story, said it was fabulous.

I timed my loo break better for Kelly Link‘s reading, and was able to sit at her feet, gazing up adoringly as she read a fabulously funny story about a girl trying to avoid getting rabies from nasty tattooed dog-owners in a small town located near a zombie city not far from the Canadian border. Much fun was had at the expense of Canadians (fine by me as long as she stays away from dissing my people). There were also lots of pyjamas. I love pyjamas. It was wonderful.

New York City, 19 June 2003

A Buffy Confession

I am a Buffy tragic. I have been an avid follower and, of late, scholar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since the first season. It’s the first television show I’ve ever been obsessed with, the first time I’ve found myself in the role of a fan. A particularly strange shift for me because I’ve spent a large part of my scholarly career writing about fans without actually being one. Now I am. I watch the show. A lot. I read and write about it online, in magazines, fanzines, journals, books. I’ve lectured about it. I’ve been interviewed about it for Australian TV, radio and print media.

There’s a long list of reasons why so many people love Buffy. Reasons that have been given by fans and scholars and reviewers and others consuming vast tracks of the internet and print in the form of articles and reviews, poems and stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer captured me in the first place because it was a genre TV show that took the rules of the genre seriously, understood them, was metaphorically resonate, cared about continuity and consistency, engaged in fabulous world-building, was intelligently written and acted and had a sassy self-awareness that was not sly or annoying. It is both funny and sad, often at the same time.

My obsession involves watching the show repeatedly, devouring DVD and other commentary by the writers, particularly Joss Whedon, and thinking long and hard about the show. This intense engagement with a set of interlocked texts as complex and as well-executed as Buffy is extraordinarily pleasurable.

My increasing obsession and professional engagement with Buffy has found me frequently called upon to defend the show. Not to the large unwashed hordes out there who will never watch or understand the show (and frankly, who cares about them?) but to other Buffy fans. Ever since the fourth season, when Buffy and the Scoobies left Sunnydale High behind, there has been a vehement rain of Buffy fan backlash.

Like relationships with other human beings, fan relationships with TV shows sometimes thrive on a mix of love and hatred, none more so than Buffy. For the past few seasons, my role of defender has meant I haven’t always admitted to my own dissatisfactions with Buffy. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than I’ve ever loved a TV show (hell, more than quite a few people in my life) but there are times when I hate it too.

Defending Buffy The Vampire Slayer

. . . . I read occasionally that people haven’t been as happy with this year (actually, I hear that every year), show’s not the same… (Posted by: Joss Whedon May 22, 2002, 2:15 AM UPN.com linear board)

I loathe defending Buffy to other fans. I feel like I’m defending a close relative. I want to tell them, "If you can’t say anything nice, then shut up." I am not rational about it. While defending the show I will say anything, no matter how illogical. I will frequently contradict myself. I don’t care. If a particular writer is attacked I will dredge the record for good episodes or lines they’ve written. I will airily wave aside complaints about plot holes as a clever play with the tropes of the genre. I’ll make stuff up: "That was not a crap line. It was a direct reference to Cansino’s last film, The Widow in the Shadows made for RKO just before he was blacklisted. Had a limited release in 1962. Nope, not available on DVD. Though apparently there’s a French bootleg video."

I cannot stand fans being so narkily and pickily critical of the show. Don’t they understand how tight the TV-land budget of time and money is? Don’t they understand that certain actors aren’t always available? Don’t they want to enjoy the show? Anyway, why does everything have to be about whether each episode or season was good or not? Don’t they realise that you can’t possibly decide that until you’ve watched it at least five or more (often way more) times? I wish they would embrace proper criticism, that mystical process whereby you can write thousands of words about the object you dissect without once revealing whether you like it or not.

Of course, I also can’t stand fans who (like myself) defend Buffy against all criticism no matter how just. Or who like it for the wrong reasons. The show is not perfect. There have been bad episodes. I know that. I just can’t stand to hear others say it.

The first murmurs of "They’ve lost it" and "Buffy‘s going down the toilet" began with Angel’s return at the beginning of Season Three. He was dead. How could they bring him back? What a cheap gimmick. Like some trashy afternoon soap opera. When a character’s dead they should stay dead. (Hmmm, I pointed out, you mean like Buffy’s death in "Prophecy Girl"?) His return from hell, the critics muttered, undermines the tragic arc of the second season. Of course, by the end there was far less murmuring about bringing Angel back, and many fans now believe Season Three is the best ever.

Buffy had been criticised by fans before, but only for less-than-great episodes. "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" 1.11, "Bad Eggs" 2.12 and "Beauty and the Beasts" 3.4 had all been slammed, but Season Four was the first time a sizeable number were trashing a whole season. What was it about Season Four? I have friends who say it was Angel’s departure. These same people prefer Angel to Buffy. As they are clearly insane, I’ll discount them. (They also think "Once More, With Feeling" 6.7 is the worst Buffy episode ever, so you can rest easy with my dismissal of their opinions.)

Most of the criticism boiled down to unhappiness with the Scoobies leaving high school. The show, many said, just doesn’t work once the central literalised metaphor—high school is hell—is lost. When the Scoobies are in college or working various odd jobs or unemployed, there’s no easy overarching metaphor that binds the show together. Being a young adult, trying to find yourself; life after high school is more complex. But it does resonate. The Scoobies’ search for adult lives and adult identities is certainly more emotionally real than any number of so-called realist shows about everyday life such as thirtysomething.

Another criticism aimed at Season Four is its preponderance of arc episodes. I have a friend who is convinced that more arc episodes than standalones means that a show is "decadent." Buffy, he says, has been irretrievably decadent since that dreaded fourth season. The references to previous incidents, once clever and witty, now overwhelm the show, making it an indulgent exercise playing to the in-crowd. Buffy is so dependent on internal references, this friend maintains, that it is now a soap opera.

I disagree. Strongly. Or maybe I don’t. Maybe it is a soap opera, but one screened in prime time with brilliant writing, fabulous acting and far less than sixty pages of script filmed a day.

Some other criticisms of the show I’ve had to deal with:
None of Buffy’s lovers since Angel have been worthy of her. He was her one true love. My response is to try not to roll my eyes. Angel is, in fact, my least favourite of Buffy’s partners. Even Riley is better (despite the writers apparently not knowing how dodgy it is for a T. A. to sleep with one of his freshman students). Their relationship was particularly interesting towards the end when Riley’s doing the whole vampire drug/sex thing. Ah, sweet tragedy. Buffy mooning after the wooden Angel was tedious, overdone (a big uggh to their theme music) and lasted way too long. It only became interesting after he became Angelus. The more compelling (with way better dialogue) Season Two relationships were between Spike & Drusilla and Cordelia & Xander.

They’ve neutered Spike. He hasn’t been a decent character since Season Two. Oh, how many ways can I disagree with this one? I love Spike with a chip. I love Spike with a soul. I adore him tragically in love with Buffy. "Fool For Love" 5.7 gives every Spike episode an extra layer—oh the fun of looking for William (I-may-be-a-bad-poet-but-I’m-a-good-man) in badass Spike.

All the villains have sucked ever since the Mayor was toasted. Why does no-one remember how lame the Master was? Worst villain ever. (And unfortunately he had the same name as the villain in Doctor Who who was way less lame.) The Initiative was a great idea. Glory is underrated. The Trio was mostly silly but had many interesting moments.

The writing has just gotten worse and worse (also known as the why-can’t-Joss-write-every-episode complaint). There are just as many shithouse, badly written episodes in the early seasons. "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" anyone? Or "Inca Mummy Girl" 2.4? (Can’t help with the Joss complaint. I wish Joss wrote and directed every episode too, although with the proviso that I don’t think every episode he writes on his own is pure gold. "Lie To Me" 2.7, "Anne" 3.1 and "Family" 5.6 are nowhere near the level of "Prophecy Girl" 1.12 or "The Body" 5.16. One episode Whedon co-wrote is amongst the worst Buffy episodes ever: the aforementioned "Out of Mind, Out of Sight.")

Season Four was going to be hated even before it first aired. Buffy tragics (like me) sat down to watch the first broadcast of "The Freshman" 4.1 with a great deal of fear in their hearts. Would the show be as good as it used to be? Is it all over? That fan fear has remained. Can the best TV show of all time stay good after so many seasons? Every episode is watched with an eye for evidence of decline. And every Buffy fan I know has turned to me to prove to them that the end isn’t pretty seriously nigh.

The fear is in my heart too. In my position as defender of Buffy to the once faithful, I watch each new episode with mounting terror. Is it a crap episode? Is it a crap season? Should I be heckling along with everybody else? Is Buffy’s inability to kill Spike a sign of decadence? Is Willow’s evil turn amateurishly handled, and her recovery even more so? Are they lamely recycling villains? Am I ever going to be able to watch a new episode of the show and simply enjoy it?

Buffy Mini-Festivals, or, How DVDs Saved My Life

No, I will never again enjoy an episode the first time through. I’m too nervous, too absorbed with anticipating criticisms and how to respond to them. I’m not capable of enjoying an episode until I’ve watched it several times. And it doesn’t become pure pleasure until the DVD set comes out and I’ve watched said episode in the context of the whole season (including all the writer/director commentaries) in the space of two or three Buffy-packed days.

Oh the glories of DVDs. Episodes that I hated when I first saw them are transformed. "Ted" 2.11 turns out to be a chillingly good episode, not the dreaded movie-of-the-week number I remembered. Even less-than-great episodes like "Some Assembly Required" 2.2 with its spectacularly lame plot—boy reanimates dead sports-hero brother (with his high school science know-how) and then builds him a mate out of spare dead-girl parts—turns out to have wonderful arc development and priceless exchanges between the Scoobies. It’s a rare episode that doesn’t have at least a moment of fabulous dialogue or a gorgeous set up for events a season or more later.

Listening to Joss Whedon’s commentary over "The Body" confirms every worshipful thought you have ever indulged about the guy’s writing and his attitude to making the show. The creators think about what they’re doing:

Joss Whedon: "Buffy" is made by a bunch of writers who think very, very hard about what they are doing in terms of psychology and methodology. We take the show very seriously. We are perhaps the most pompous geeks of them all. When somebody says there is a philosophy behind "Buffy" that is the truth. When they say there is symbolism and meaning in what we’re doing, that’s true too.
(Joss Whedon AOL Chat, 10 November 2002 http://www.geocities.com/soporjoe77/josschat.html)

Although watching a whole season back to back is excellent, there are stomach-tightening moments when horrible suspicions about a given episode or story arc are confirmed. Yep, it is as bad as I feared. But there is a solution—a beautiful one which has salved the wounds suffered while watching and defending Buffy. I create my own Buffy mini-festivals! I recommend it as the very best way to ensure your Buffy viewing is stress- and anxiety-free.

All that’s required is some judicious episode selection. Start with the obvious, say a series of relationship festivals: Spike & Buffy (first "School Hard" 2.3, next "Halloween" 2.6 and so forth), or Cordelia & Xander ("What’s My Line Part 2" 2.10, "Ted" 2.11, "Bad Eggs" 2.12 and "Innocence" 2.14 etc.). Or you could have a Jonathan festival ("Inca Mummy Girl," "Reptile Boy" 2.5 etc.) Or a Ripper retrospective ("Halloween," "Band Candy" 3.6 etc). Then you can graduate to the less obvious: the Anya’s-afraid-of-bunny-rabbits festival, the conveniently-located-axe festival, and the slutty clothes festival.

Here are some of my favourites:

The Perfect Buffy Festival
There’s at least one perfect episode of Buffy every season. Watching them together gives me a happy. The following are my current choice of most perfect from Seasons One to Six:

" Prophecy Girl" 1.12: What is so fabulous about "Prophecy Girl" is not that Buffy beats the tedious arch-villain, but that she does it with the aid of the entire ensemble cast. The episode is the distilled essence of everything that had been keeping me watching the show up to that point: the fabulous sharp dialogue between the characters ("You’re looking at my neck," says Xander to Angel on the way to rescue Buffy), the rip-roaring plot that barely lets up, the beautifully drawn friendship between Buffy, Willow and Xander, the tragedy of sixteen-year old Buffy walking knowingly to her death. All the promise of the season comes to fruition. Before "Prophecy Girl" I thought Buffy was a pretty cool show with some great moments, way better than anything else on the box. In its wake I was an obsessive Buffyholic.

" Innocence" 2.14: the episode when the Buffy & Angel romance finally got interesting. I adore the moment when you really know Angel is bad: not simply because he bites into the woman’s neck, but because he blows out a plume of her cigarette smoke. Angel’s smoking. He’s a villain now. This is a perfect arc episode because it turns the action up to eleven.

"The Zeppo" 3.13: By Season Three the fans were completely familiar with the standard Buffy plot, so clearly it was past time for the creators to mess things up a bit. They did so delightfully. Buffy deconstructs itself by making the A plot into the B plot. Angel and Buffy snatch a moment alone together, the music swells up, Xander walks in, the music goes away. It’s the first time the writers really played around with the structure of a Buffy episode, and it’s, well, perfect.

The perfect episodes of Seasons Four through Six are, of course, a no-brainer: "Hush" 4.22, "The Body" 5.16 and "Once More, With Feeling" 6.7. Not just perfect Buffy but perfect television.

Willow & Tara Festival

Okay, this is a pretty obvious festival, but I adore these two, and their relationship illustrates one of the many things I love about Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it endlessly builds on itself. Casual dialogue from early seasons start to become more resonant in the light of later events. "Willow’s not looking to date you," Xander says to Buffy, "or if she is she’s playing it pretty close to her chest" ("Prophecy Girl" 1.12). Then two seasons later in "Dopplegangland" 3.16, Vamp Willow comes onto Willow with the traditional face-licking method. "I think I’m kinda gay," says Willow, somewhat perturbed by the whole experience.

Seeds are planted and then they grow. It’s glorious to watch. Especially when they grow into Tara & Willow having the best metaphoric sex ever shown on television. When these two women do spells together then whoosh. From the hand-holding vending-machine propelling of "Hush" 4.10 to the unbelievably sexy spell of "Who Are You?" 4.16: Tara’s thumb to Willow’s forehead, lips and sternum, they begin to chant, they start to breath heavily, their hands touch, their breathing becomes even heavier, they glisten with sweat, their eyes half-close, a magical circle rises around them, they stare into each others’ eyes, Willow falls back gasping. Oh my. But there’s more to come: the superlative "You Make Me Complete" scene from "Once More, With Feeling." Sigh.

All-Charming-Pretty-Boys-Who-Aren’t-Vampires-Are-Bad Festival

I always knew that, but thanks to Buffy for proving it over and over again. Watch Tom in "Reptile Boy" 2.5, Ford in "Lie to Me" 2.7 and Parker Abrams in "Living Conditions" 4.2, "Harsh Light of Day" 4.3 and "Beer Bad" 4.5. They’re all variations of the same guy and they’re all bastards. But cute bastards.

Dreaming Buffy Festival

I love the way the show uses dreams. Instead of the gorgeous though not especially informative Twin Peaks’ dream sequences (nicely referenced with the red curtains in "Restless" 4.22) Buffy’s dreams are not merely beautifully done, but provide acres of plot and character exposition. In fact, the very first time we see Buffy, she’s in bed dreaming about the season’s villain, the Master ("Welcome to the Hellmouth" 1.1). Turns out Buffy dreams a lot, and those dream sequences just get better and better. The moment when Giles suddenly turns to strangle Buffy while Willow and Xander sit by obliviously ("When She Was Bad" 2.1) startles the viewer and instantly conveys just how much Buffy has not recovered from her ordeal with the Master. The predictive dream sequences of "Surprise" 2.13 and "Graduation Day Part 2" 3.22, with its references to Dawn’s arrival in Sunnydale two seasons later, are the beautiful seeds that grows into the all-dream episode of "Restless" 4.22. How much do I love "Restless"? My love is bigger than the ocean. I cap off this festival with the mostly-delusional "Normal Again" 6.15. Delusions, dreams. Same thing.

Tragic Buffy Festival
I love the sheer heart-wrenching pleasure of tragedy, and Buffy is the most tragic show on television. Hours of joyous pain and many damp tissues. A single line of dialogue can set me off, from Buffy’s plaintive, "Giles, I’m sixteen years old. I don’t want to die" ("Prophecy Girl" 1.12) to Jonathan’s speech when he presents Buffy’s Class Protector Award, "Most of the people here have been saved by you" ("The Prom" 3.20). "The Prom" makes me tear up no matter how many times I see it. So does "Innocence," "I Only Have Eyes For You" 2.19, with its haunting use of an already creepily haunting song, and "Seeing Red" 6.19 with Tara’s death. Of course "The Body" and "The Gift" 5.22 ("Don’t do it Buffy, let the brat jump!") make me howl.

Buffy’s life (like those of Hamlet and Odysseus) is one continuing train wreck that affects everyone around her. At the end of Season Six, there’s not a cast member who is not in some way a tragic figure. I love it.

But as I’ve mentioned several times there are times when I hate Buffy. Here are two festivals that show why:

Actually, They’re All Stupid Festival

Unfortunately there are a handful of episodes where the Scoobies seem to have collectively or individually lost all claim to even the intelligence of a gnat. Most don’t involve some spell that explains the idiocy away. Buffy spends most of "Triangle" 5.11 crying in an unconvincing, vaudevillian, over-the-top way. What the hell was that about? I bought that kind of acting in "Something Blue" 4.9 cause, well, there was a spell.

Worse still are the episodes when the entire cast, director and writing team are rendered moronic. "The Inca Mummy Girl" 2.4 has an even lamer plot than "Some Assembly Required," with no cool Scooby dialogue or arc plotting to save it. It’s ineptly written, directed and, sad to say, acted. The story could have been lifted from a Goosebumps book. Kids go to museum, scary mummy comes to life. The plot holes are large enough to drive an eighteen-wheeler through. The South American exchange student is staying for two weeks with the hugest trunk you ever saw—conveniently big enough to stash a body in. Everyone keeps doing things purely for plot reasons. There’s dead time. When Xander picks up the Incan Mummy girl from Buffy’s place there’s an endless, pointless filler conversation between them and Joyce and Buffy. It’s like watching As the World Turns. The dialogue between the Scoobies is awful: "Do we have to speak Spanish?" asks Xander. "Cause I don’t know much besides ‘Doritos’ and ‘chihuahua’."

"A Very Special Buffy"

This is the worst of all possible festivals, suitable for viewing only by the very brave. I hate with a fiery burning passion when an episode of Buffy turns into "a very special Buffy," something Whedon has explicitly promised would never happen. In these episodes some kind of heart- (or rather stomach-) wrenching problem comes up and is dealt with and we learn a lesson. You know what kids? Domestic violence is wrong ("Beauty and the Beasts" 3.4). Sick kids are sweet ("Killed By Death" 2.18). Death is sad ("Help" 7.4) These episodes are vile. I have to pinch myself. Am I watching some horrible cross between Charmed and Seventh Heaven?

"Help" does appallingly badly everything that "The Body" did brilliantly. We’re supposed to care about some kid we’ve never seen before who talks in breathless meant-to-be-wise-beyond-her-years psychobabble. Die, already. The penultimate scene consists of the Scoobies sitting around discussing their tragic loss as heart-tugging music swells around them. (Whedon specifically didn’t use music in "The Body" because it’s too easy; he didn’t want to let the audience off the hook.) Buffy says she wished she’d saved the kid, "She was special." Yeah the kid’s horrendous teenage angst poetry sure was special. In the last scene Buffy is back in her counsellor’s office. Gee, kids, looks like even our superhero Buffy can’t save everyone. Though, hang on—isn’t that the lesson learnt from Joyce’s death? The last two scenes of "Help" are just like the wrap of some sitcom or Touched by an Angel. It was all I could do not to throw up.

But even worse is the "very special Buffy" arc of Season Six: Willow’s magic addiction. Or, gee, could it be a metaphor for drug addiction? Just in case you haven’t caught on, there’s a poster-boy drug dealer with hippy clothes and long hair called Rack who talks slow, and lots of scenes of Willow being all spaced and, ooh, kind of stoned-looking. The sight of Willow in "Wrecked" 6.10 (which gets my vote for worst Buffy episode ever) in the junkie waiting room causes me physical pain. Drugs are bad, man. Just say no. I wished I’d been stoned watching it, which would at least have eased my pain. Man, the Buffy metaphors used to be a tad more clever and emotionally resonant. As in, you sleep with your boyfriend and overnight he turns into a monster.

I hate Willow’s becoming Dark Magic Queen all the more because the writers blew it. The set up for Willow’s descent goes all the way back to her first tentative steps with magic in season one. They did not need to belabour the drug addiction metaphor with Rack and Amy, and Willow’s AA (or is that MA?) total abstinence. (Especially as Giles’ approach at the beginning of Season Seven seems far more sensible.) I have rewritten that arc in my head a hundred times. First I put together a mini-festival of Willow’s use of magic, which includes Giles’ angry remonstration with Willow after she brings Buffy back ("Flooded" 6.4), and Willow’s chilling speech to Dawn ("Two to Go" 6.21). In the versions in my head, Willow’s complete descent into blind grief, rage and madness does not turn her into an after-school special villain mouthing ludicrous lines like, "There’s no-one in the world who has the power to stop me now!"

Way More Love than Hate
Ultimately the brilliance of Buffy makes the occasional falls from grace that much harder to stand. Knowing that every episode of Buffy could be a work of genius of the level of "Who Are You?" 4.16 or "Restless" or "Once More, With Feeling" makes the occasional sub-Charmed-level hour a stab to the heart. Why can’t Buffy be produced like The Sopranos, with time and money to burn?

Buffy is both good and bad; wonderful and excremental. Even the very worst episodes have moments of gold (well, okay, almost all do). And, even a few good episodes have a cringe-worthy moment or two. A great deal of criticism and other writing about Buffy has gotten caught up in dichotomous thinking: it’s good or it’s bad, it’s feminist or it’s misogynist; it’s racist or it isn’t. Buffy is all of these.

Buffy is certainly obsession-inspiring. That’s why I fervently hope that Season Seven is the last season of Buffy. Frankly, I can’t take any more. I pray that the show will end. I want to watch television without a stomach full of knots. Seven seasons is plenty. More than enough to keep me happy with endless reprogramming of my Buffy festivals. If it all stops at the end of this season then I can rule out the possibility that there will ever be an entire bad season that is nothing but episodes like "Killed By Death" and "Wrecked" and "Help." I want a finished, no-longer-unfolding text. I don’t want there ever to be a set of Buffy DVDs that I can’t do anything with.


Coda: Way More Hate than Love

The balanced, temperate words above were written only a short way into Season Seven, before I realised how horrifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer had gone off the rails. It’s many months now since I have made any attempt to defend the show. Instead I have taken to bitterly muttering about how much better it would have been if they’d finished in the Sixth Season, making "Normal Again" the final episode. I’m now one of those people I used to defend the show against. There is no one more bitter than an ex-true believer. Color me narky and picky.

I’m writing this coda a week after the season finale and to be honest I’m still in shock. On the one hand, I’ve gotten my wish: Season Seven is the last season of Buffy. On the other hand, I’ve also gottten what I most feared: a set of Buffy DVDs I can’t do anything with.

Everything I write in this coda is flying in the face of my assertion that you really can’t have a coherent opinion about a Buffy season until it’s come out on DVD and you’ve seen it at least five times. I’m not saying I won’t change my mind, but right now I’m looking forward to watching Season Seven on DVD about as much as I look forward to a 24 hour plane ride in cattle class.

Season Seven was a nightmare. Only three episodes I would describe as good (forget about looking for any works of genius—a "Once More, With Feeling", a "Hush"—there weren’t any): "Selfless" 7.5, "Conversations With Dead People" 7.7 and "Chosen" 7.22. Each of these episodes had problems. "Selfless" added all sorts of resonances to Anya’s character, setting up exciting possibilities for future development. None of them went anywhere. The rest of the season trundled along as if "Selfless" had never happened. The rationale for Tara’s not appearing to Willow was lame in the extreme. Why would Willow be persuaded, even for a second, by the annoying ditz from "Help"? "Chosen" felt exactly like what it was: an episode butchered to fit its hour time slot. Everything except the tedious Spike & Buffy love story was short-changed (I sure wish Faith and Robin Wood had gotten a bit more of that screen time). Anya’s death, which should have been tragic (especially in light of the groundwork laid down in "Selfless"), managed to elicit little more than a "bummer, man" expression from Xander. Hardly anyone else even noticed.

No episode of Season Seven made me cry. Well, okay, except for tears of disbelief that the show could possibly have become so bad. The worst failing of Season Seven has been the writing. Overall it’s been shocking. The humor was forced, and the characters all developed multiple personalities, none of them believable. The Buffy and Spike relationship become as wet and annoying as that of Buffy and Angel. Since when was Buffy a humourless bitch? Had the Scoobies learned nothing that they would so easily turn against her yet again? Since when did these people speak in a series of tedious speeches:

Buffy to Faith: Don’t be afraid to lead them. Whether you wanted it or not, their lives are yours. It’s only gonna get harder. Protect them, but lead them ("Empty Places" 7.19).

And yet, after all, it is Buffy. This is the nasty divorce, but we may in a year or two become friends again. There’s always a chance that those DVDs will work their magic and I’ll be able to come up with a whole new set of Buffy mini-festivals. (I can’t help noticing that "Selfless" is the perfect end to the Anya’s-afraid-of-bunny-rabbits festival.) Right now, though, I’m just so relieved it’s over.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Scott Westerfeld, L. Timmel Duchamp and Glenn Yeffeth for all their useful comments on this essay, which was first published in Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Discuss Their Favorite Television Show (Smart Pop series) edited by Glenn Yeffeth.

New York City, 30 May 2003

Brave Rabbits: the Carol Emshwiller and Ursula Le Guin Show

Saturday’s conversation between Carol Emshwiller and Ursula Le Guin was fabulous and moving and for me the highlight of the 2003 WisCon. Eileen Gunn fed them the occasional question, but mostly they chatted amongst themselves, covering writing about the recent war (Ursula needs to stew on things for a while, so hasn’t yet; for Carol the process is more immediate—she’s already sold a number of stories on the subject, at least one of which is in print), teaching the craft of writing (Ursula loves to steer her students towards contemplating the fine art of comma placement), raising childen while trying to write (apparently the trick is to get them to go to bed by 7:30pm) and a great deal more about the road they’ve had to hoe as writers. It was glorious wittnessing such a warm and easy friendship between two very different women. Ursula’s path has been for the most part golden (does anyone truly have an easy path?) with supportive parents and spouse, while Carol came to writing later, with little support and a certain amount of hinderance from her spouse. Her discussion of the difficulties of stealing time to write whle raising her children ("I felt like I couldn’t breathe," she said at one point, smiling) elicited hisses for her late husband from the audience, and yet there was no condemnation in her words nor even the faintest whiff of bitterness. Ursula claimed to be a rabbit in comparison to Carol’s bravery. Carol claimed that she too was a rabbit. John Kessel dryly pointed out from the audience that, if so, she was a very brave rabbit. The audience laughed a great deal, and I know that I was not the only one whose eyes filled with tears.

Carol is in her eighties and Ursula in her seventies. The average life expectancy of a woman in the USA is 79, so they’re doing well, but have hardly reached Guiness Book of World Records ages. So why the big deal? Carol and Ursula—at any age—are extraordinary people. Warm, witty, compassionate brilliant writers. Part of the big deal is that they are doing some of the best writing of their careers right now. They show that the life of a writer can just keep on going. If you’re healthy and still sparking on all cylinders—though both Carol and Ursula seem to have way more cylinders than most of us—you can write, and more importantly, you can keep getting better. Who doesn’t want to hear that message?

But what filled my eyes with tears as I listened to those two white-haired, sharp-witted, funny, funny women was that not only are they ubelievably cool folk that anyone would give their eyeteeth to hang out with but they run counter to the predominate images of old women we get in the west. Most of us under fifty have never seen anyone remotely like them on television, or on film. We were given no expectations as we grew up that old age for a woman is anything other than a time of horror, ugliness and stupidity. You’ll lose your looks (someone must’ve forgotten to tell Carol and Ursula about that one), your mind (ditto) and will either turn into a mean, screeching witch who eats children or a gentle, silver-haired Stepford grandma with an endless supply of home-baked cookies and homilies and little interest in anything other than her grandchildren.

Most of us in the west are afraid of old age. On Saturday, watching Carol and Ursula talk and laugh about their writing lives, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t remotely afraid.

Madison, Wisconsin, 25 May 2003

The New York Nexus

In 1999 Elizabeth Cummins published an article in Extrapolation, "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." This article is a response to Cummins. The short answer to her question, "Where’s the book?" is that I’m writing it. The long answer goes something like this:

In 1996, Judith Merril told me that I should write a book about the Futurians and the Hydra Club (that is, the people she hung out with in NYC in the 1940s and 1950s) because "we were amazing."2 Powerful though an injunction from Judy Merril was, it was not the only reason I decided to undertake such a project. The idea of writing about the postwar period had been growing during my previous research project on the battle of the sexes in sf. It had become increasingly clear to me that the postwar period was pivotal to the development of American science fiction. This importance had also struck Elizabeth Cummins as she worked with Judith Merril’s letters in the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. Cummins was working on a complete Judy Merril bibliography, but what she found in those letters went far beyond bibliographical research. She worked with "numerous cardboard boxes of material that had been cursorily catalogued and filed" and describes the stimulating experience of "being immersed in the New York science fiction world of the 1940s and 1950s . . . I came away convinced that someone needs to write a literary history of that science fiction nexus" (314).

Judith Merril never had any doubts about the importance of the period or her role in it. She began her memoirs because:

some of my (male) friends and compeers began publishing politely laundered Autobiographies of their successes and I was snowblinded by the bleach in the detergent. Here were lists of stories sold, banquets attended, speeches given, editors lunched, even wives married and divorced, with never a shriek or tear or tremor or orgasm, and hardly a belly laugh anywhere. My memory (notoriously bad for facts and figures, but usually good for character and dialogue) insists that in those down and dirty days of ghetto science fiction most of us were young, passionate, frail, tough, loving, quarreling, horny human beings, testing ourselves against each other and the world. Somebody, I thought, should tell it like it was. (425)3

She was also clear that scholars needed to do work on the period:

the science fiction community I entered in New York in the early forties; that literary ghetto of the 1930s-1950s, with its brilliant and intricately interactive population and its clear/mad insights into both human and technological evolution (before the possibilities of wealth and mundane prestige brought in less intense practitioners), constituted a ‘movement’ (literary and sociological, as in ‘Bloomsbury’) of serious potential scholarly interest. (425)

In 1999, the year Elizabeth Cummins’s article was published, I was granted a three-year fellowship to write a book about the Futurians, the Hydra Club, and science fiction in New York City from 1938 to 1959. I immersed myself in the primary materials available at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library (an extraordinarily rich resource which includes Donald Wollheim’s collection of Futurian fanzines). Then in September 1999, I made NYC my base and began my fieldwork. I decided to make talking to those who had been around during the period my first priority, and getting to archives—which aren’t going anywhere, right?—second. As a result I did not get to Judy’s letters in Ottawa, which had so inspired Elizabeth Cummins, until April 2001.4

I did not, in actual fact, read Cummins’s article until earlier that year. When I came across it I found myself smiling. How often do you read an article that tells you to write the book that you are in the middle of researching and writing? It’s a wonderful feeling. I too had been struck by the obviousness of it: anyone who has read the primary source material from that period would also recognize the need for such a book. Cummins’s article made Judith Merril’s letters sound fabulous. Judy had told me several times in e-mail, insisted really, that I needed to go to Ottawa. Now I wish I had gone as soon as I arrived in North America. Instead I interviewed and worked through other primary sources, something else that Cummins has called for:

If the secondary material continues to perpetuate factual errors such as that Judith Merril was responsible for calling the new 1960s science fiction "New Wave," or that one of her given names was Juliet, what other errors abound? As evidence of the new insights that occur when one goes back to the primary sources, we have the 1992 Foundation essays by Gary Westfahl in which he re-assessed John W. Campbell’s contribution to science fiction. (315)5

In 1985 and 1989 Judy Merril gave her papers, mostly correspondence, to the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. During her lifetime they could not be quoted, and a proportion of them could not be consulted, without her permission. (Both Cummins and I had Judy’s permission.)

The Judith Merril fonds (archives) are approximately 15 metres in extent, contained in over 75 boxes. Some contain drafts of stories, cut-outs of early pulp publications, or newspaper cuttings but most are full of letters. Judy corresponded with almost everybody in the science fiction scene. Many of the Futurians are represented: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim; science fiction editors: Tony Boucher, John W. Campbell, Ed Ferman, Horace Gold, Mick McComas; sf writers: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Mildred Clingerman, Avram Davidson, Philip K. Dick, Carol Emshwiller, Philip Klass (William Tenn), Fritz Leiber, Katherine MacLean, Walter M. Miller, Mack Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon. They range from passionate love letters to brief discussions of editorial matters.

In April 2001 I arrived in Ottawa and spent several days working around the clock, trying to get through all the letters in the few days I had. It was an impossible task but I had to make it manageable somehow. At first I decided I would only read through her correspondence with other well-known figures from the period, but a day’s work barely made a dent on the Fritz Leiber files and the Walter M. Miller ones are even more extensive. At the same time I kept coming across detailed correspondences with people I’d never heard of. Merril’s letters to her fans and readers reveal just as much about her and science fiction during the time as do her correspondences with other writers and editors. For example, in this response to a reader claiming not to understand "That Only a Mother," she sets out a great deal of the thinking behind the genesis and writing of arguably her most famous story:

October 5, 1948
Dear Mr. Swartz:
I seem to have left your letter at my office, where it was forwarded to me from the offices of ASF. I’ll do my best to answer it from memory.
So many people have told me they don’t understand the story, and almost always (as in your case), it finally turns out that they do, but just don’t believe it. What you choose to believe possible, of course is your own affair. But yes, I did mean that the mother refused to admit to herself that there was anything wrong with her child. And yes, according to at least four psychiatrists I know who have read the story, and an uncounted number of mothers who ditto ditto, the reaction is not only a possible, but even a plausible one.
Margaret, in the story, had been unable to have a child. She had been almost convinced that her husband’s work with atoms had sterilized him. When she found she was going to have one, knowing as much as she did about it, she was terrified that it might be a mutation. She had wanted a child too long to be able to admit that possibility to herself, and other people—the doctor—the newspapers—all did their best to help her sell herself on the fact that her baby would be normal. Day after day, for nine months, or a large part of that time, she told herself her baby would be normal. So it is not impossible that she developed a mental block which made it impossible for her to admit that there was anything wrong with the child.
I may add that the story was written because I saw an article in the paper (mentioned in the story) about infanticides in Japan, and I wondered what the reaction of a mother to a mutated baby would really be. Then, as it happened, an incident occurred which forcibly brought to my attention the fact that my own little girl had a perpetually objectionable drippy nose—which I had never noticed. That gave me a clue to a possible reaction, and I based the story on it. As I said above, later, a number of psychiatrists who read it bore me out completely in my extrapolation.
OK?
But you did understand it, you see.
Sincerely,
Judy Merril
6

There are a series of letters between her and Cyril Kornbluth (most from Merril to Kornbluth) as they laboured to get Mars Child written for serialization in the May, June, and July 1951 issues of Galaxy.7 At the time Kornbluth was living in Chicago. The writing always seemed to go a lot better when they were both in the same place. The following letter covers a number of Merril’s perennial worries: money, writer’s block, love.8

March 5, 1951
Dear Cyril,
So you’re wondering by now why you haven’t got Part III back yet?
I’m a sap. I should have come to Chi when I was thinking of it, mostly for the reason that I didn’t come. The same reason, I mean.
I was having troubles, and was discouraged, yes.
Then came this stuff, about which Fred says he told you, of Galaxy possibly folding. For which reason I decided I shouldn’t come and spend dough that might not come back so certainly after all. I was wrong; I should have come, and not stuck around here to get daily reports on the fluctuating health of World Editions.
Monday, finally, as you know, they paid off on Part I—then I began getting more rumors that seemed to add up to Part I being paid for and in print, and no magazine after the May issue. I took time out to do an article for Marvel and just yesterday got back to Mars Child.

Here, too, are market worries. It’s easy to forget that magazines with such long runs as Galaxy sometimes looked like they would not be able to keep publishing. Indeed, World Editions, the publisher of Galaxy, ceased publishing it in September 1951 when the Galaxy Publishing Corporation took over. Merril continues:

Pardon me I should blow off steam in your direction, when apologies it’s I should be making, but these gripes will out, and somebody ought to give my old man a course in Merril-psychology. After studiously avoiding discussing the story per se with him, because I know what he can do to my morale, I didn’t think to protect my rear guard, and discussed Galaxy and sale possibilities with him. Better I should have been in Chicago, fighting plot with you.

Her old man was Frederik Pohl. Things between them did not get better, and by the end of 1951 they were divorced:

Anyhow, time is getting away from us. The moving finger has not writ, and if it hasn’t writ enough to send you all I have been promising by Friday, then I shall make the earliest reservation and come too late with too little. No hotel rooms either.

She is, as ever, struggling to get work written on time. Writer’s block was a problem for Merril throughout her career.

I see what you mean about Part II being over-cut. Am restoring some; Fred did not go over it; he decided under the circumstances at World Editions, to sell it to Horace overlength as if it were 20,000, at 3c per, for fear that they would cut the rate on anything longer. So I might as well (since there is time; they’re holding out on going to press too) put back stuff that should be back. You did a beautiful job, though—some really tricky verbiage pruning.
One way or ‘tother, by Monday, the 12th, you will have either Part III, with ideas and suggestions in typescript, to come with, or me to ditto.
Who me? Depressed? What a silly thought!
The fact remains that the sooner it gets finished, a) the sooner we can submit to book publishers, b) the more chance there is of getting some money out of Galaxy, and c) the sooner we can start something else. Also, as of Saturday, Horace says whatever happens afterwards, the May-June-July issues have been made definite. (F. Pohl, my very own everloving husband, only looked wise and shrugged when I repeated same to him. But I’m working on believing what Horace says.)
Depressed, did you say? Bah!
So I shouldn’t be hitting you with this probably. One of us on the skids is enough. Only I do owe you some kind of explanation, and that happens to be it and I’m not in the mood to think up any cheerful lies.
All will doubtless be for the best, and I feel better already.
It sez here.
By the way—did we tell you—we found a house. Near Red Bank, New Jersey. Great big thing. Negotiations now going on for bank loan and such. Will move in mid–May if all goes well. Got to finish this damn novel and make some money.
Cheers and felicitations.
J. Merril Pohl
9

Money, or rather the lack of it, comes up over and over again. I was never under the illusion that science fiction writers in the 1950s lived in the lap of luxury, still, it was startling to this naive researcher to read of Frederik Pohl selling a story "overlength as if it were 20,000" in order to get a higher word rate. Almost all the other writers Merril corresponded with suffered from the same lack of ready cash.

The experience of reading those letters, of getting into Judy Merril’s head, demonstrated my faulty thinking—if only I had read those letters before I interviewed so many 1940s and 1950s figures (some of whom I would not be able to interview again) I would have an entirely different set of questions. And, more importantly, I would have understood their answers differently, having a much better sense of who people were, what their relationships with each other were, how they felt about each other.

Cummins was right: reading those letters—again, there are boxes and boxes of them—makes that period come alive. As I read, I began to get a much better sense of the lives of these science fiction writers, editors, fans in the 1940s and 1950s, something that numerous interviews and second-hand accounts had not conveyed so vividly. For example, a letter from Les Cole made clear what some of my interviewees had implied—Judith Merril had not been universally popular. In the letter Cole explains that:

An anti-Merril fan is one who does not care for the Merril personality. "I like her stories, mind you, but the times I’ve seen her I’ve had the definite impression she thinks her shit doesn’t stink; you might say I resent being patronized." This is not a direct quote; as I remember he didn’t use the word "patronize", but that was what he meant.10

Why are Judith Merril and her letters important to the history of science fiction? Because they throw light on a hitherto neglected area of science fiction scholarship. Neither Elizabeth Cummins nor myself are the first to draw attention to the importance of this period for the development of science fiction. Samuel R. Delany has several times called for more work on postwar science fiction that takes into account not just the stories and novels written and published but also the conditions under which they were published and their reception—that is, the culture of science fiction during that period (Delany 85).11

As Elizabeth Cummins points out, there is work on postwar sf. There are a "number of scholars [who] have written about the 1940s and 1950s New York science fiction scene. In histories, genre overviews, critical essays, and bibliographies" (314). However, no full-length work putting all of these previous efforts into context exists, and it should. A close examination of the period demonstrates that certain notions about science fiction’s reception by the mainstream do not hold up. For example, the conviction that mainstream accounts of science fiction, and of science fiction fans in particular, have always been dismissive—"science fiction fans are written off as unsocialized, media-obsessed weirdos" (Gomoll 5)—has long been held. Researching the 1940s and 1950s, I found many positive (or at least not negative) accounts of science fiction and fandom in mainstream magazines. As early as 1939, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine that compared science fiction favourably to other genres in terms remarkably similar to those of Kingsley Amis’s 1960 New Maps of Hell:

A cowboy story could not possibly interrupt a stage robbery with a page of rhetoric about sunrise in Raton Pass, but the writer of science fiction can hold his audience enraptured with pages of talk about the FitzGerald Contraction, quanta, the temperature of distant stars, the molecular structure of minerals, and other matters which one would suppose to be far over the heads of the people addressed in the advertisements.
(DeVoto 446)

What he is praising in particular is the readers, the fans, who are "enraptured" by such high-falutin’ concepts and are obviously smarter than the readers of westerns.

During the postwar boom in publishing, many important writers and editors and magazines, such as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, made their first appearances. Science fiction criticism was taking its first fledgling steps, and science fiction was having its first major impact on the mainstream. All this is reported in a September 1946 article in Harper’s Magazine on postwar science fiction:

Never in America had there been such general interest in scientific fantasies—television, radar, atomic power, super microscopes and telescopes, jet- and rocket-propelled planes, helicopters, robot-like electronic calculators—these and dozen of other marvels-turned-realities had all been forecast and their political, economic, and cultural consequences explored with startling fidelity by science fiction writers months and even years before. Suddenly more and more Americans bewildered by the seven league strides science had taken during World War II, were turning to science fiction for a hint of what the future might have in store. (Baring-Gould 283)

Searching for articles on science fiction in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years from 1926 (the first appearance of an all science-fiction magazine in English, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories) up to 1950 is instructive. There are no articles until 1939, very few during the war years, and then from 1946 on there are several articles every year. In the 1920s and through most of the 1930s the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature did not have a term for the genre; by 1939 it was using "pseudoscientific stories" and then "science in literature." In 1953, the Reader’s Guide began solely using the term "science fiction."12 These articles appeared in such places as Harper’s Magazine, Atlantic, The New Yorker, Life, Saturday Review of Literature, The American Scholar, Collier’s and Publisher’s Weekly. Science fiction stories were published in Collier’s, Madmoiselle, and Saturday Evening Post. Some of these articles were written by science fiction professionals like Asimov, Campbell, and Heinlein.

A 1949 article from the Saturday Review of Literature, "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature" by Claire Holcomb, gives a history of the field and then finishes:

Today’s s-f dreamer of utopia generally avoids the error committed by some of his literary ancestors, that of banning progress. Today we know that there must be change. Will that change be life-giving or life-destroying? Science fiction cannot give the answer. It can, however, be a tonic to the imagination and thus prepare hearts and minds to find—and accept—whatever answers there may be
. (37)

Holcomb’s article emphasizes the great interest the genre holds for scientists. She writes that "near our big wartime weapons research centers" at places like "Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Columbia University, Harvard Square, Berkeley" sales of science fiction magazines (Astounding in particular) were "exceptionally large" (9). She knew what she was talking about: the blurb following the article reveals that Holcomb "worked for a time on the Manhattan Project and later as New York field secretary for the Association of Scientists for Atomic Education."

Sf was taken seriously enough by the Saturday Review of Literature that it had a yearly round-up of sf. These round-ups by Fletcher Prattt are well written and researched and portray sf as a field of limitless commercial potential. For example, in his 1949 account of the field he writes:

They are the people of space, refugees from the pulps. The books that chronicle their adventures are published by houses of unfamiliar names from such places as Providence, Sauk City, Wis, and Reading, Pa. Few of these books reached the regular bookstores at first and fewer still were noticed by the reviews. But old-line publishers who were moved to investigate this phenomenon discovered that these books were selling in quite unprecedented quantities to a public which had seldom or never bought books before but whose devotion to this form literally knew no bounds…. One of the regular publishers, desirous of experimenting inexpensively with this form of literature, offered to take some of a specialist publisher’s remainders for reissue under the name of the larger house. "Remainders?" was the reply, "Listen, when one of our books gets down to where it would be a remainder it becomes a rare book and we charge double for it."
The big publisher was presently issuing a couple of science-fiction volumes on his own account. So have others; by 1949 at least seven of the familiar houses have science-fiction titles on their lists and more are in prospect. The prediction that the form would replace the detective story as the dominant type of escape literature has moved measurably toward realization.
(7)

These round-ups were written by a science fiction insider. Fletcher Pratt was a member of the Hydra Club who wrote science fiction and fantasy.13 (He corresponded with Merril from 1951 until his death in 1956.) But their publication in the Saturday Review of Literature proves that not only were the 1940s and 1950s important to sf, but that sf was important to the 1940s and 1950s mainstream.

Elizabeth Cummins ends her article by outlining her hopes that:

the writer of this literary history would come to the project without allegiance to concepts such as "the golden age of science fiction" and without a belief that it must be defined and defended in order to ensure that it really did occur or in order to ensure its mythological continuance. Equally challenging would be the need to maintain critical distance from the writers, publishers, fans, agents, editors, reviewers who would be a major source of information – in their surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications or in current interviews that the writer of this book would conduct. (317)

I have now spent years reading through their "surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications" in private and public collections across North America and in Sydney, Australia. I have interviewed and corresponded with Harry Harrison, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, David Kyle, Judith Merril, Sam Moskowitz, Frederik Pohl, Julius Schwartz, Robert Silverberg, William Tenn (Philip Klass), and others. This project began with Judith Merril. If I had not met her and received her injunction I’m not sure I would have undertaken it. I am aware of her failings, of the erraticness of her memory, her temper, her attention span. But she is one of the most compelling and wonderful people I have ever met. And reading her letters—so prolific and detailed that I now feel like I can account for almost every day of her life from 1944 to 1959—was like meeting her and being seduced by her charisma all over again. I’m not sure that I have the kind of critical distance that Cummins hopes for. I’m also not sure if it’s necessary or even desirable. But I am sure that any history focussed through the lens of Judith Merril’s personality and keen observations will bring this vital period to life.

Works Cited

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell. New York: Ballantine Books, 1960.
Baring-Gould, William S. "Little Superman, What Now?" Harper’s Magazine September 1946: 283-88.
Cummins, Elizabeth. "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." Extrapolation 40.4 (Winter 1999): 314-319.
Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1984.
DeVoto, Bernard. "Doom Beyond Jupiter." Harper’s Magazine September 1939: 445-8.
Gomoll, Jeanne. "Introduction: Visualizing the future." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science Fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 1999. 1-11.
Holcomb, Claire. "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature." Saturday Review of Literature 28 May 1949: 9-10, 36-37.
Merril, Judith. "Better to Have Loved: Excerpts from a Life." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australian Press, 1999. 422-42.
Merril, Judith and Pohl-Weary, Emily. Better to Have Loved. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
Pratt, Fletcher. "Science Fiction & Fantasy—1949." Saturday Review of Literature 24 December 1949: 7-9, 23.

Notes
1 I would like to thank Scott Westerfeld for his invaluable comments on the various drafts of this article. Also thanks to Emily Pohl-Weary for permission to quote from the Judith Merril fonds at the National Archive of Canada and to Anne Goddard of the Archive for all her assistance.
2 For details of my meeting with Judy Merril, see my article, "Researching the New York Futurians," Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, No. 82 Summer 2001, pp. 45-52.
3 Judith Merril’s memoirs, Better to have Loved, have been completed by her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary.
4 My (lame) excuse for coming to Cummins’s article so late is that at the time I was so obsessively researching the 1940s and 1950s in New York City, reading only books written or published during that time period, particularly sf, listening only to music from the time, starting to dress in styles from the 40s and 50s—I do mean obsessive—that I was not managing to keep up with recent sf criticism.
5 It is a call I am very receptive to. My book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, details the debates about sex, men, women and feminism in letters and editorials in science fiction magazines.
6 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Astounding Science Fiction folder, letter to Mr. Swartz, October 5, 1948.
7 The book version appeared as Outpost Mars in 1952.
8 Let’s face it, they’re the perennial worries of almost every writer.
9 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Mars Child folder, letter to Cyril Kornbluth, March 5, 1951.
10 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, MG 30 D326 Vol. 37, Les Cole folder 2-2, letter to Judith Merril, March 3, 1952.
11 Joshua B. Lukin and he have edited an issue of Paradoxa solely devoted to the 1950s.
12 Elizabeth Cummins also draws attention to this shift in terminology and the explosion of primary mainstream sources on science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s (Cummins 315).
13 His best known work was in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp.

©2002 Justine Larbalestier
First published in Extrapolation, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 277-287.

Romantic Jetlag

The phone rings. Before it rings again I have it in my hands pressed to my ear. "Hello," I say sleepily. "Whatcha do today?"

That’s me in Sydney, waking at 7AM to Scott in New York City recounting his day. He’s finished the rewrites on his new novel, is about to go drinking to celebrate at Veloce—do I remember Veloce with the cheap but good Italian sparkling wine and wonderful panini? Sure I do. We both smile. Or at least I imagine he’s smiling because I am. I ask. He is.

In NYC it’s 5PM, but Scott’s kind of sleepy so he’s calling me lying in bed, phone cradled, whispering into it. I’m lying in bed at the beginning of my day listening to his whispers. As his voice gets sleepier so do I. Just before we both fall asleep we hang up. Later, we say.

I wake up 3 hours later feeling groggy and confused. It’s 11AM and the phone’s ringing, Scott again. He fell asleep and missed his drink date; I fell asleep and missed a meeting.

Welcome to the land of romantic jetlag.

Scott and I met while I was living in New York City. I was there for two years researching a book about the city. He’s a writer too. I’d see him at readings and other writerly places. I thought he was kind of cute; he thought I was kind of cute. We have some mutual friends so eventually we were introduced. We never got to know each other very well, but when we ran into each other we’d have amusing conversations, make each other laugh.

It never went any further than that. That is, until my last weekend in NYC. On Monday I was to fly back to Sydney. He came to my Friday night farewell party. We spent all weekend together.

It was wonderful, my NYC fling: neither of us looking any further ahead than the minute we were in, just concentrating on the fun we were having. We didn’t think anything would come of it. How could it? Him in NYC, me in Sydney.

He called me four hours after I got off the plane in Sydney. It was 11am; 9PM in New York. He’d never phoned anyone in Australia before.

"You said it’s a fourteen-hour time difference, right?"

"That’s right. At least it is when you’re in summer and I’m in winter."

"Is it cold there?"

"Let me see." I walked outside with the phone nestled between chin and shoulder. "Yep. It’s like 60F."

"Eww. Must be a shock after NYC. It was 95F when you left."

"Yesterday," I said.

"I guess that’s right. It was yesterday for you. Two days ago for me."

The street was quiet. Rainbow lorikeets flew by in their greens, reds and blues. Some wattle trees were in bloom. I described the scene. Told him I’d heard a kookaburra not long after I’d gotten home that morning. He couldn’t quite believe all that flora and fauna so close to Sydney’s downtown. "Sydney’s very green," I explained feebly.

We talked for over an hour, about how I felt to be home after two years away, about writing, the projects we were working on, New York City—had it changed in the more than 24 hours since I’d last seen it? I arranged to call him in a week’s time.

"Is 8AM okay?" I asked.

"My time or your time?"

"My time. It’ll be 6PM your time. I’ll call on Thursday."

"You mean Wednesday?"

"Er, yeah. Your Wednesday; my Thursday."

In the first few weeks, when we still didn’t know each other that well, there were many emails and a phone call only once a week. We’re writers. It seemed natural to get to know each other better through the written word.

As the weeks wore on, we started to call each other more and more, living our lives in a kind of hybrid NewYorkSydneyCity time. Confusing time. Can’t tell day from night. Or tomorrow from today from yesterday. Winter from summer. "Is that your tomorrow or my tomorrow?" I always know what time it is New York but am hardly ever sure what time it is here, in Sydney, the city where I was born and bred.

I’m tired most of the time, out of sync with where I am. My friends snap their fingers in front of my eyes and ask if I’m here or back in NYC. It’s expensive too, eating up time even more than money: mornings and evenings on the phone, hours and hours of sleepy conversations.

During those few moments when we’re not awake at the same time we write emails. If I’m not near a computer I write them in my head. Describing things that are happening to me as they happen. Everything except talking to Scott is at second hand. Like living in a dream. In our first month apart we exchanged 250 emails. More than eight a day.

At any hour of my waking day I’m wondering where he is, what he’s doing. I can imagine it clearly. I’ve been to Veloce, Veselka and alt.coffee. I’ve walked through Little Italy, Chinatown, over the Brooklyn Bridge. I know what Second Avenue looks like on a Saturday morning in July as you walk home from a night out, with your friends slowly peeling off as they disperse to their apartments, till I get to my place on the corner of 2nd and 6th . . .

Except that I never lived in the East Village. That’s Scott’s place.

Me, I’m back home in Sydney living with something that tugs at me throughout the day. A fine cord that extends across the Pacific, across the US, into NYC, to the East Village, to the apartment on 2nd and 6th, to the chair overlooking his view downtown where he’s sitting drinking a beer and just about to call me.

The phone rings. It’s 2AM in NYC. Four PM in Sydney.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Whatcha doin?"

When he starts to drift off to sleep I put the phone down, fall asleep and wake up hungry at 6PM. Shit. I was supposed to be having dinner with Catherine at 8PM. I haven’t done any work. I phone her, full of apologies.

I get to work, able to focus now that Scott’s asleep. I’m on Sydney time for a few hours. When I look at the clock it’s six hours later. Midnight. I still haven’t eaten. I have some granola, yoghurt and an apple. I feel weird, like something’s missing. The dark outside the window is strange. It’s 10AM in New York City: time to call Scott.

"Hello," he says sleepily.

We talk for hours about my work, his dreams, getting tireder as we talk. He’s sleepy; I’m sleepy.

"It’s late," he says. "I gotta go to sleep."

"No, it isn’t." I remind him. "It’s morning for you."

"Oh, yeah."

It’s 2AM in Sydney, noon in New York City and we’re both falling asleep. Unable to shake free of romantic jetlag.

Scott has decided to move to Australia. I begin to imagine him here in Sydney, rather than me there in New York. I think of all the places I want to take him: the sea cliff walk from Bondi to Clovelly, I imagine how amazed he’ll be by such gorgeous beaches so close to the city; the Botanical Gardens where I can show him the flying foxes in near-plague proportions. I wonder if he’s ever seen a flying fox before. I can’t wait to introduce him to the noble game of cricket. I think especially of all the food I want him to taste. He’s never eaten mangosteens or rambutan or custard apples or longans before. He’s never had proper Thai food.

While Scott is on the plane, flying to me, the fine cord, the tug that has been pulling me back to New York, begins to lessen. For the first time since I came home I feel like I am home, all the way home. It feels good. It feels strange. I’m starting to wake up.

And then Scott is here in Sydney too. He gets to see the wattle trees and rainbow lorikeets for himself, hear kookaburras, meet my family, my friends, eat fruits he’s never seen before. We’re on the same time and in the same place. We wake up together and go to bed together. I don’t have to imagine touching him, brushing his eyebrows straight, kissing him. I can. We do.

We’ve never been happier, together and in synch, but sometimes I have just the faintest twinge of nostalgia for those soft confusing waves of romantic jetlag. For that short-lived life inside a dream where time and place were blurred and there was only his voice and mine, pressed close to our ears, whispering our ideas, aspirations and longings. Then I reach out and touch him, warm and there, all nostalgia gone.

Researching The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

(Talk given to the Friends of the University of Sydney Library on 19 August 2002)

I’m here to talk about the genesis of my new book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. The book literally would not exist without Rare Books’s Science Fiction collection. And neither would the book I’m currently working on. In fact, neither would my career. Or at least my career would certainly have gone along a very different path.

The science fiction collection is built around Ronald Graham’s 1978 bequest of his extraordinary sf collection. He was an obsessive spending a vast deal of his fortune attempting to acquire every copy of every sf magazine or book ever printed. He came pretty close. Knowing that his family had zero interest in sf he bequeathed his collection to Rare Books. The existence of that collection is why I’ve been working on early sf for the last ten years. It’s a science fiction scholar’s dream. It’s all down there: the fiction; the criticism; the discussions; both amateur and professional. Reading through the pages of magazines and fanzines in the early days of sf I saw the sf community emerging.

I was first shown around Rare Books in, I think, 1991. I was in the final year of my honours degree and I had been toying with the idea of doing my Ph.D. thesis on fantasy or science fiction. What my Ph.D. was going to be about occupied my mind a lot as I procrastinated about writing the essays that would get me the marks that would allow me to actually do said Ph.D. Depending on the time of day or what I had just read my thesis was going to be about the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities in Australia; the short stories of Isak Dinesen or Angela Carter or Tanith Lee or Kate Chopin or maybe Flannery O’Conner; or possibly on the use of nightmares in horror films.

Somehow, I really can’t remember how this happened, who it was that told me the collection existed, or who to see about it, but I went and saw Pauline Dickinson (the creator and then manager of the collection). I must have been really incoherent describing why I wanted to look at the collection because somehow she assumed that I wanted to look at the fanzine collection. I had no idea what a fanzine was. For those of you who don’t know a fanzine is an amateur magazines produced by science fiction fans which covered many topics, sometimes even science fiction.

Pauline pulled various fanzines out, talking about the Futurians and the Moonrakers, as though I should know who they were, mentioning names like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (at least I’d heard of them) as well as lots of many names that were completely new to me. She mentioned something called a staple war and other other puzzling things.

Pauline than showed me the science fiction magazines. I had only the vaguest notions about the history of science fiction. For me it was a genre made up of books. I had no idea that short story magazines had been crucial to its development. I had no idea that until the paperback boom of the 1950s, short story magazines had been crucial to almost all genres of writing, particularly in the USA. Here was Pauline, holding up the very first issue of the very first English-language science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories dated April 1926. I was, well, amazed. I knew then and there that my thesis was going to be about science fiction, and was going to be shaped by that collection.

1n 1992 as soon as I enrolled, I went to work. I was absolutely thrilled to discover that it was deemed more practical to give me a desk down in the collection, than for me to sit in the reading room filling in request forms for particular volumes. The majority of the collection is not catalogued, making it pretty difficult to specify what volume I wanted.

So there I was alone in a huge room with no windows, full of row after row of the various special collections–Victorian triples; a complete run of Playboy magazine, rare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific texts; detective fiction; and then right at the end the many, many shelves of the science fiction collection: books and magazines and fanzines and my little desk and chair. I felt like a child let loose in a lolly shop.

At first I had no system because beyond the general area of science fiction I had no idea what my thesis was going to be about. I read through early issues of Amazing and fanzines from the 1930s because they were what I had seen first. Then I read issues of magazines with titles like Planet Stories, Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories because they had the best covers.

I realised fairly quickly that I was far more fascinated by the letters and editorials than I was by the stories. Many of which are pretty unreadable by contemporary standards. The letters by contrast were often lively and engaging. They range from short letters which merely rate the stories, to discussions of scientific problems in the stories, to debates about the state of science fiction and the world, or perhaps just the state of the particular magazine. This letter from a 1947 Astounding Science Fiction is a good example:

The whole magazine is really something that science fiction can be proud of, something that you can show to the scoffers and say, "Since when is science-fiction tripe!" The recent atom-bomb stories are wonderful, frightening things, really not "astounding" at all, since they very likely could happen in another war….

BUT, Brass Tacks is the worst letter column published. It’s too short and doesn’t have half enough editorial comment on individual letters. Either you leave out Brass Tacks entirely, or you publish three or four long, highly technical letters from people who write in and dispute the accuracy of the meteorology, astronomical mathematics, electronics, or gunnery trajectory computation of the articles. Not always, of course, but more and more Brass Tacks is inclining towards the old Science Discussions. There’s nothing wrong with Science Discussions but it gives fans like me, who are majoring in history and English literature, a rather futile, behind-the-times feeling, as if our humble opinion is not wanted, aside from maybe a card rating the stories.

Reading the letters becomes addictive because there were often sequels. A controversial letter in one month would be followed up by many replies in later issues. Or sometimes a seemingly innocuous letter would set the letter writers off. Certain names would turn up over and over again. I found myself beginning to skip letters from some writers because they annoyed me (I know bad historian, bad) and impatiently looking for the letters of other regulars (known in the fan community as letterhacks).

It all began in Amazing Stories. The first science fiction magazine, with the first editorials and letter columns. This is where science fiction fandom was born. Those letterhacks started to write letters directly to one another. Easy to do as their full address was printed in the magazine. From writing each other letters they went on to forming clubs and printing fanzines and by 1936 putting on the first science fiction conventions.

Reading through the early issues of Amazing I saw the first appearance, in the editorials and the letters, of the notion that science fiction is not like other popular genres, that it is a literature of ideas. A literature about science, technology, progress. A literature that is good for you rather than being merely escapist.

Gernsback frequently points to the magazine’s educational mission declaring in the first issue that his magazine is not "the love story" or "the sex-appeal type of magazine [or] the adventure type”. The emphasis was strongly on the ‘science’ in science fiction: "[W]e live in an entirely new world. Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible.” Gernsback writes:

Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are also always instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain—and they supply it in a very palatable form. For the best of these modern writers of scientifiction have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught (First editorial, April 1926: 3).

Gernsback particularly loved to publish letters from readers who were led to study science by reading science fiction: One of his readers writes that the "science in most of the stories is an inspiration to me in my studies in electrical engineering” (Science Wonder Stories [October 1929]: 467).

I was utterly fascinated by this wealth of primary material. I was also out of my depth. I realised I was going to have to read some secondary material to help make sense of it all. In the midst of doing that I came across Joanna Russ’ 1980 article "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction” and suddenly my thesis, now book, was born.

In the article, Russ uses the term "the battle of the sexes" to refer to sf texts which are explicitly about the ‘Sex War’ between men and women. She discusses ten stories published in the USA between 1926 and 1973. Stories in which women have turned on men—literally battled against them—and taken over the world. Worlds in which women have been eliminated because they are no longer necessary in a male scientific utopia. In most of the worlds where women have taken there will be one brave man left who will find the one feminine woman left and together they will lead the world back to how it should be. The stories sounded bizarre.

Before I read the Russ article I had no idea there were such stories in science fiction. Yet because I was sitting reading this article down in Rare Books surrounded by the majority of the science fiction published in English between those dates 1926 and 1973, I was able to get up and find the original of each story on the shelves. The majority of the stories Russ refers to come from Sam Moskowitz’s anthology When Women Rule (1972) I was able to read the stories in their original context, with the editorial descriptions of them, blurbs about their authors, and readers’ responses.

It was clear that the sf community recognised it as a subgenre of science fiction and could name many other examples. Often berating a particular story for merely copying an earlier and not doing it nearly so well. Having read the stories in situ it was easy to find those other examples and I could read debates about the relationship of men and women taking place not just in the stories but in the letter columns and editorials of the science fiction magazines and in the fanzines. All of which gives a very different picture, a more complex one, than that set forth by Russ in her article. As I said access to this kind of material is historian heaven.

In one day I had read Joanna Russ’ article, most of the stories she refers to, as well as some letters in response to those stories. Because of my earlier random reading through other science fiction magazines I had already come across letters to the editor that dealt with the Sex War. I knew I had a wonderful topic.

One of the letters I had already seen was by the 18 year old Isaac Asimov supporting the idea that women and love (interchangeable items) have no place in science fiction. They’re interchangeable terms because according to Asimov and others, the only place for a woman in a science fiction story is as the love interest not as, God forbid, a scientist. In one letter, in support of another correspondent he writes:

Three rousing cheers for Donald G. Turnbull of Toronto for his valiant attack on those favoring mush. When we want science-fiction, we don’t want swooning dames, and that goes double. You needn’t worry about Miss Evans, Donald, us he-men are for you and if she tries to slap you down, you’ve got an able (I hope) confederate and tried auxiliary right here in the person of yours truly. Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science! (Astounding Science Fiction [September 1938]: 161).

I read with interest the many replies of female—and male fans—who disagreed. That particular debate comes up in science fiction again and again. I had no shortage of material.

Sitting in Rare Books surrounded by thousands of sf fanzines, magazines and books I was able to follow the emergence of science fiction fandom and the science fiction community. The majority of academic work on science fiction either ignores or says very little about the importance of the science fiction magazines and of science fiction fandom. I believe the major reason for that is simply lack of access. If Rare Books did not have this collection, I doubt that I would understand science fiction in the same way that I do now. (Even if I had actually done a PhD on science fiction and not one on the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities of Australia.) The majority of my information would have come from secondary not primary sources.

Rare Books is also where I first discovered the New York Futurians who are the subject of the book I am working on now. I discovered them one day when I had reached my limits of reading battle of the sexes stories. This happened every so often.

Here’s a plot synopsis of a typical sex battle story: "The Priestess Who Rebelled,” published in 1939 by Nelson S. Bond is the first in three stories about Meg, a priestess in a postapocalyptic matriarchal world. She meets a man, Daiv, who is unlike the soft, weak men who serve her people as breeding stock. He comes from the one unmatriarchal people left on Earth. Meg is on her way to see the Gods, this being the last rite before she becomes the Mother, head priestess of her people. The man, Daiv, tells her that her Gods are men and implores her to be his mate as she is very beautiful—though his first words to her are: "You . . . talk too much. Sit down, Woman!” (208).

Before Meg goes to see her Gods, Daiv kisses her, "the touching of mouths,” and she is swept off her feet but still determined to do her duty. She arrives at Mount Rushmore, which turns out to be the Place of the Gods, and sees that her Gods are in fact men: Jaarg, Taamuz, Ibrim, and Tedhi. Meg realizes that her sterile, unnatural, virgin existence need not continue: she can become Daiv’s mate and live happily ever after. She tells the priestess of her people:

It is no Man-thing, Mother. It is a Man; a real Man such as were the Gods! Not a scrimping parody like our breeders, nor a foul brute like the Wild Ones – but a Man. He is Daiv, my mate! (Bond 1940: 46).

As you can imagine reading stories like that everyday for several years can become a bit much. So every so often I would get up, prowl around the shelves, until something would catch my eye. Very early on two beaten up cardboard boxes did. They turned out to contain early Futurian fanzines, a few letters and some photographs. I’m pretty sure Pauline had pointed them out to me during that initial tour.

Although I recognised some of their names, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and knew the Futurians were a fan group I still had only a vague idea of what science fiction fandom was. Reading their fanzines from the late 1930s/early 1940s was a lot of fun. They were funny, lively and engaging. I learned about the first ‘world’ science fiction convention held in New York City in 1939 in conjunction with the World’s Fair and about their feud with some of the members of the rival sf fan group, the Queens Science Fiction League, which led to four of the Futurians being barred from attending the convention.

I became obsessed and spent several days reading Futurian material. Their fanzines varied from one- or-two page notices which were circulated in their share households to full scale productions with artwork, stories, poetry and articles. I did not know as I read them that the Futurians were the most famous of all sf fan groups. Famous because almost everyone of them went on to a distinguished career within the field. Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, Judith Merril and James Blish were all Futurians.

The Futurians formed in the late 30s when a cadre of left-wing science fiction enthusiasts got together in New York City. They were aged between 14 and 21. They adopted the Gernsbackesque motto, "Save humanity with science and sanity”. Though unlike Gernsback there was a certain amount of tongue in cheek. Though not always, in 1939 Frederik Pohl had the following letter published in "Under the Lens,” the letter column of Marvel Science Stories:

Readers of your magazine will be interested in the new Futurian Federation of the World, an organization which will make strong attempts to enroll every science fiction reader in its ranks. It is not necessary to be one of the ten most popular fans to join The Futurians or to enjoy its organ; it is merely required that one have an active and alive interest in science fiction and in the future.

The official organ of the Federation, The Futurian Review, furnishes the most adequate and interesting coverage of what is going on in science fiction and allied fields of any fan magazine. Subscriptions to this paper are given free to all members of The Federation and can be obtained in no other way, but a sample copy, plus information on the club itself, may be had for 10c in coin of any country of the world sent to Frederik Pohl, Provisional President 280 St John’s Place, Brooklyn, New York (Marvel Science Stories August 1939: 108).

The drive to gather lots of other Futurians did not last very long. The group never exceeded twenty and by the early forties the desire to conquer the world and turn it into a Futurian Federation had vanished. They were happy just hanging together reading, writing, arguing.

Reading their fanzines as I did–with precious little context–raised more questions than answers. What I wondered was Ghod and Ghu? Who were the evil Quadrumvirate? What on earth were they raging a battle against?

Some of the answers to these questions I found in a fabulous amateur publication, The Fancyclopedia, published in 1944 by one Jack Speer which I found underneath one of the boxes of Futurian material next to the run of Wonder Stories. There was an entry on the Futurians:

Futurians – A group of New York fans, of whom Wollheim, Lowndes, Pohl and Michel have been the central figures. Others thot [sic] of as belonging to the group are Cyril Kornbluth, Harry Dockweiler, Chet Cohen, Dan Burford, Jack Rubinson, David A. Kyle, Dick Wilson, Isaac Asimov, Herman Leventman, Walter Kubilius and leslie perri.

The Futurians present a peculiar differentness in whatever sphere of fan activity they engage in, being, with some exceptions in each case, Bohemian in social practices Marxistic in politics, anti-Sykora in fan feuds, Michelistic in fanish whiterings, inclined fanarchistically with regard to general fan organization, given to vers libre in poetry, eroticism in literature, and decadence in all forms of art, and having taken part as a bloc in Progressive and Constitutional parties of the FAPA.

They emerged upon the breakup of the ISAA, and were the dominant faction in the Second Fandom, when they were called Wollheimists. When the GNYSFL broke up, they formed the FSNY in September 1938. With Pohl’s Futurian Federation of the World, the term "Futurian” became a common word for that type of stefnist. After the Quadrumvirs resigned from FAPA office, they became less active, but lived in various science fiction houses, and many graduated in time from author’s agents to editorships of some of the new pros, where they put quite a lot of their personalities into their magazines, and were noted for the number of Futurian authors appearing in Futurian-edited magazines (41).

This raised a whole lot more questions. Who’s Sykora? What’s the ISAA? I spent a lot of time flipping from entry to entry in the book before realising that I really needed to get back to reading about real Men and real Women and the battle of the sexes.

I did not forget the Futurians or their fanzines. I realised that this was a very interesting and weird group of people who had an enormous effect on shaping science fiction. I became even more determined to go back to them when I discovered how rare the fanzines were–a large part of the collection of Futurian papers in the Rare Book no longer exist anywhere else in the world.

So that’s how this book and the one I’m writing came about and how I’ve found myself transformed into a science fiction expert. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of Rare Books who since 1991 have been absolutely amazing. Thank you.