I recommend meeting your idols in person, I really do. (At least, if you have good taste in idols like I do.) Going to lunch with them is even better.
22-24 October 1999
Sheraton Hotel, Denver CO
Besides visiting with friends, I went to MileHiCon this year with one agenda on my mind: seeing my favorite fiction author, Lois McMaster Bujold. And, if the gods smiled, affixing myself to her coat-tails and following her around for the entire convention, slavishly gazing at her in wide-eyed, fatuous adoration.
(Mostly just to make Jeff completely nuts
The short version:
I basically spent the weekend in Bujold's coat pocket.
(Say, you know? Maybe my List of People I Want to Have Lunch With isn't such an outrageous ambition after all.)
The long version:
The gods did smile -- in fact were probably laughing their ethereal little asses off. These two ambitions -- following Bujold and seeing friends -- turned out to be effectively one and the same. Susan and Caro are also devout Bujold fans. All I had to do was follow them around. For once in my life I was part of the right "In" group. And MileHiCon is a small convention so, despite Bujold being Guest of Honor, she did not have a huge mob of loyal fans stampeding around after her. Just a cozy little gaggle of us.
Why Bujold? Well, let's see. She writes fiction that, over the course of the last year or two, has slowly but inexorably wormed its way into the very roots of my brain, to the point where it's nearly impossible for me to even finish anything else, let alone really enjoy it.
For those who haven't read them, I can't recommend Bujold's books highly enough. If you have any taste at all for SF and/or solid, character-driven fiction, run-do-not-walk down to your local bookseller and pick up Cordelia's Honor. For the rest of this report, I'm going to assume basic acquaintance with Bujold's work. I should probably issue a generic spoiler warning, as I will be discussing specific plot points in the books as they came up in conversation.
Oh, and all quotes are from memory, so I apologize in advance for deranging anybody's statements or ideas. And please -- if you were there and you remember something differently than I do, I implore you to let me know so I can correct this report.
Anticipating the conIt always fascinates me how one can develop a powerful relationship with someone, based on nothing more than words on a page. Especially with authors I like, I'm forever trying to peek past the prose and catch a glimpse of the psyche behind it, often with surprising success. Was it Mark Twain who said that one should never meet one's idols? Because the person is always so much less than the work.
I disagree. Maybe I'm just lucky (or have exceptionally good taste -- that's my favorite theory). Of the three or four people on my List that I've actually managed to meet, each one of them has turned out to be very much the fascinating, complicated human being hinted at in the subtexts of their work.
My mental relationship with Bujold is a strange one. Usually when an author takes me by the brain, I am overcome with a powerful urge to talk to them. I can make magnificently detailed movies in my mind of the splendid conversations we would have.
But with Bujold, I haven't really gotten a sense of Who's Behind the Curtain. In fact, for a long time I had her pegged as English. (She's most recently from the Midwest.) ("Probably the Georgette Heyer influence," she said when I mentioned this.) Nor have I found myself fantasizing Grand Conversations in my mind like I do with Spider and Jeanne Robinson, for example, despite deep curiosity about her writing process.
I mostly went to see her because of the Sturgeon Lesson. I had half a dozen chances to meet Ted Sturgeon, but I had never read any of his stuff. Then he died. A couple of years later, I discovered his stories -- and fell in love. I've been kicking myself ever since. I didn't know. I just had no clue. I'd already missed one easy chance to see Bujold, back in '94. I resolved I wasn't going to let that happen again.
Human lessonsI am engaged in an ongoing efforts to figure out how to do this Human Thing. I figured this convention would be a good opportunity to test out some new theories I've developed recently.
My biggest struggle has always been to try to connect with the people around me. At my lowest points, I've sometimes felt that people actively avoid me. My deepest horror has been that there was something I was doing that was actively driving people away.
I have lately worked out that, in most cases, I can usually get maybe three to five words worth of willing attention from the people around me. (Actually, I suspect it's more like ten to twenty-five words, but given my tendency to logorhea, it feels like three.) Since I started scaling my overtures to fit that, I can now often -- even reliably -- achieve a satisfying results with most of the people I encounter.
Since I developed this strategy on the general population, and am aware of some differences in "accent," I speculated about how it would work with fans: is there a different interaction mode? What adjustments would I have to make?
Friday nightI felt some dismay when I got to my room at the hotel. I was on the third floor, which also held the con suite, ops, and a couple of party rooms. Noise. Was I going to be able to sleep?
But brief investigation revealed that the thermostat had an "on" setting for the fan. Whew! I had sound conditioning. Worse, though, was the cigarette smoke and the ash-trays on the nightstands in the room. I felt a moment of anger: I had specifically asked for a non-smoking room.
A message had been logged for me when I checked in which turned out to be for Cass Marshall. I speculated that the hotel had made a similar confusion with the room assignment, since Cass is a smoker.
I contemplated going down and asking for a different room, but a sniff-test didn't reveal any smoke in the pillows. There was a little whiff by the door, but into the room it pretty well disappeared. I decided to let it go, and found my attention turning instead to the room's merits. Huge windows on two sides, king-size bed, lavish helping of open floor-space (suitable for doing yoga).... And had a small kick of delight:
Entirely undeliberately, my attention had gone to what was right instead of dwelling on what was wrong. Son of a gun, the work I've been doing on my Attitude -- half-full glass and all that -- seems to have installed.
Found Susan and Caro in the mezzanine. Susan's model-horse design demo had been aborted due to lack of power for the tools, so she and Caro were just sitting around chatting with Bonnie. When I pulled up a chair, Susan brought out a modified Breyer from her box -- stocky red roan (originally a Freisian). First thing I noticed was a scar on its neck. "Fat Ninny!" I grinned. "Got it in one!" Susan said. She'd made him for Bujold.
Since my big news was my recent hysterectomy, conversation inevitably turned to matters gynecological. Susan described some of her own adventures, in particular the results of her doctor's attempt to put her on birth-control pills some years ago. "Rowrr! Grr!!" She snarled, miming fangs with her fingers, followed by passionate sobbing. Evidently the hormones had caused some, er, slight mood swings. "You're not taking those again next month," the Clone had firmly told her.
I was soon giggling helplessly, and I was reminded that one of the things I love most about Susan and Caro is their wonderfully theatrical storytelling style. Susan has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for the last several years, but is learning to deal with it. It's a blessing to see her regain some of her old energy.
9pm: "The Outsider in SF" panelBujold is a neat, bright-eyed, pretty woman of quiet manner, brief, graceful gestures, and precise diction. As anticipated, she bears not the least resemblance to Miles, even psychologically, although one can see Cordelia's origins. I found her laugh disconcerting: it's deep and throaty, and doesn't match her speaking voice at all. And since her facial expression doesn't change much, there were a number of times when I realized only belatedly that she was laughing at something.
Unsurprisingly, the panel concluded that nearly any character worth the time is going to be an outsider to some degree, and that we're all outsiders, otherwise the character's issues would have no impact for us.
10pm: Chat in the lobbyI came upon Susan and Caro in the mezzanine, and followed along while they went and found Bujold at a table signing autographs. When she was done, she suggested that the half-dozen of us repair to a more comfortable location, since the dance had started up and the music was making conversation difficult. We wound up down in the lobby in a circle of couches, and wiled away the next hour or two chatting. One fellow laid out the shirts he'd had embroidered with logos from the latest book for her approval. Susan presented her with "Ninny." We traded horse stories and comments on various favorite bits in the books.
I really hope that Bujold likes having fans gush about this or that bit of her writing that they particularly love, though I do suspect it can be a little awkward trying to figure out what to say in response. There was a constant refrain of, "I'd really like to know more about..." and "Why don't you do more with...?" Bujold pointed out that while there were many books that might be written, there is sadly only one that can be written at any time. "You can do anything, but you can't do everything."
Somebody commented that it was really unfair that it takes her a full year to hammer one of these things out, but then we zip through it in three hours and chirp "So when's the next one coming out?" It's obvious to me that there needs to be three of her, but I suppose that would entail its own practical difficulties.
I finally heard her say the names of her characters. Took me a minute when she first mentioned "Aral" because it came out "aural" and in my mind I'd been hearing it more like "air-all." But, by damn, I was pleased to learn that I had "Vorkosigan" right.
She mentioned that she does a lot of plotting that is completely separate from the process of composing prose. Acres of Post-It notes in the kitchen. Far more deliberately constructed than I would have guessed based the depth and subtlety of emotion that she achieves. (Although her intricate plots do suggest a fair amount of engineering.) She later mentioned that she grew up around a lot of engineers, so it makes sense from a cognitive strategy standpoint. She singled out the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign as a prime example. I think she said there were something like twenty-seven active players with four separate independent viewpoints that she had to choreograph.
Finding myself in New York
In May of 1997, I went to New York for the first time to see the Willem Dafoe in Eugene O'Niell's The Hairy Ape. Afterwards, I happened to overhear someone else from the audience ask about getting an autograph.
I'm not normally an autograph collector, preferring more substantive interactions, but I decided it was silly to get so near and not close that final distance. In truth, I think I was just plain scared. But I marched myself out to where some other fans were waiting.
Still ambivalent, I decided that if Dafoe seemed to be enjoying handing them out, I would get one. Otherwise, I'd just watch. My dilemma thus resolved, I settled down to wait. And the strangest thing happened.
I was overcome by a deep serenity. For the first time in my life, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
Puzzling over this, I concluded that Dafoe was only the guiding star. The Grail -- the real payoff of which I was reaping (before, and irrespective of whether, he even came out) -- was simply this:
I'd followed my desire. I was doing the thing I really, truly wanted to do -- which scared the living crap out of me for a half- dozen reasons. The peace came from surmounting my fears and doing what I wanted.
Dafoe did eventually come out, but it seemed to me that he wasn't really into this autograph thing, so I hung back let him go, content with this strange new connection I'd made within myself.
Going to bedDrifting off to sleep that night, I was already deeply exhausted, but in a strangely well-nourished way. I felt a subtle, deep soul- satisfaction, like the first time I was in NY. I was where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to be doing, with the people I wanted to be around. This sense would persist and grow subtly through the rest of the con. It never achieved the density that I experienced in NY, but I think that may be because I was relying on Susan and Caro to take the initiative in hanging out with Bujold. I never quite nerved up to doing it by myself.
LunchAfter the "Architects and Engineers Dreams" panel, Susan, Caro and Elaine (whom Susan knows from an apa they'd been in together) invited me to lunch with them. Just after we'd been seated, Bujold came into the restaurant. Susan asked her if she'd join us, and she did.
I was struck repeatedly through the course of the weekend by Bujold's compassion for her readers. "I think the importance of fiction as a mood-altering drug is vastly underrated." She expresses scorn for literature intended to "make you a better person." She believes her readers already have lives, thank you very much. "People live with the most horrifying secret burdens. I picture the classic Bujold reader as a children's cancer hospice nurse home after a long, difficult day."
"Family in a box," I piped up. I explained that I've been alone most of my life, and I'm alone in most of my day. To be able come home to a book full of people I love and respect -- that's desperately important.
My ponderings on my Human lessons before the con proved precient: there was definitely something about dealing with folks at the con that was not quite the same as dealing with co-workers. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something was getting in the way of my smooth participation in the conversation. Timing was off somehow. I was missing switching signals or something.
1pm: Author Reading: BujoldBujold's latest book is a stand-alone fantasy novel, not part of the Vorkosigan saga. Took me a little while to warm to it (partly getting used to her reading style I think), but by the middle of the second chapter, which was where she finished for the afternoon, I was intrigued. (Part of the problem was an inadequately-managed baby which was a significant distraction.)
She's taking a unique approach to this one. She says she's learned that book contracts are a double-edged sword ("after turning a 1992 book at 1984 prices") she prefers to finish them before she sells them. (This pleased me inordinately, given my general "cash on the barrel-head" approach to life, and confirmed my own intention to do business this way if selling books ever becomes a question for me.) Having stored up enough reserve to coast for a bit she is, I think she said, seventeen chapters in to what looks to be a twenty-five chapter book, and hasn't even shopped it around yet. The other advantage this confers, obviously, is complete creative freedom, which she is exploring to see how much of a difference it makes to her writing comfort.
While she was reading, I was mildly startled by how much my painting habits effected my listening style. When I paint, I typically have the TV going, looking up occasionally as the story progresses to catch actors' expressions and so on. But mostly I just listen to dialogue and sound effects. Disconcertingly, I kept having the impulse to look up, and finding that there was no visual component to check. Left me feeling oddly disoriented.
The other thing that was distracting was that a chapter of my own novel decided to pick that moment to come channeling through, and so I had this weird sensation like trying to listen to two station radio at once.
2pm: "The Future of Biological Warfare" panelThe discussion was predictably appalling. Bujold took the opportunity to offer again an insight she'd mentioned several times before: "It was really scary when I finally realized that there are no grown-ups. It's really just us. We're all just faking it. And no one's in charge!" Lovely to contemplate, particularly in this context.
I just have one thing to say: "Let's don't, and say we didn't." But I don't suppose anybody will listen to me....
(Mostly) the ones I've met: Well, first there were Sterling and Damaris, Susan's kids by a long-ex husband in Missouri(?). Then came Caro, the Clone. See, Susan and Caro are not lesbians, but by any reasonable definition of the word, they are indisputably married, lo these twenty-odd years. Then came Kenny, who is about the same age as "the big kids."
It seems Damaris didn't approve of the parenting style in Kenny's foster family, so she decided her own family would adopt him. Next there's Mikey, who was born while Susan was working in a special care facility. Since Mikey's parents weren't able to take care of him, Susan decided to "re-up," as a mom.
Next there's Zachary, Damaris's first son. Then her husband Nigel, whom I haven't met. And then Damaris and Nigel's twin girls. And Sterling's wife Bethany, and new daughter Alexis, who I met at the party while she was crawling around being Too Cute. And now Kenny's new fiance Melissa, who seems not at all daunted by the prospect of marrying into this clan....
I think a prominent programming item for next year's MileHiCon ought to be a contest to come up with a collective name for this mob.
4pm: Kenny and Melissa's betrothal partyI staggered into the party a little after four, after an entirely inadequate nap. Fortunately, coherence was not required of me, merely the willingness to laugh at jokes and eat cake made by Caro's Aunt Marcia.
I had to interrupt a lovely chat with Elaine when something Connie Willis said caught my ear. It seems that she's collecting Hugos and Nebulas with the idea that when she gets enough, she's going to trade them in on Harrison Ford. Connie reported that Bujold had heard about this, and suggested that she and Connie pool their awards. Maybe do a sort of a time-share arrangement. (It was left undisclosed with whom they would be making the trade.)
Connie reported on a Certain SF Author Who Shall Remain Nameless and his obsession with the Swiss. (They're After Him, you know. Yes, that's right. The Swiss.) She's hatched a plot to get a bunch of fans to write him post cards, which she will then ship to an agent in Switzerland to be mailed back to the author with the appropriate postmark. Connie is an evil child and will come to a bad end, and hearty belly-laughs are ill-advised after abdominal surgery.
I did finally deduce that the fellow sitting over by the bed, playing with the baby, must be Sterling. See, every time I see him, he's in a different body. The first one was two feet tall. The second one was four feet. The third was six feet plus, skinny, and short-haired. This one was still six-plus, but now stout, long-haired, and bearded. I guess he gets this from Susan, though she mostly just changes hair- or skin-color. Well, and mammary arrangements.
DinnerSusan invited me to join the dinner expedition arranged by the members of the Bujold email list who were present at the con. I caught up with Susan and Caro in the lobby after their party broke up. Susan handed me one of the buttons she'd made for the occasion: "Miles Hi Con." In Dendarii brown and silver, of course.
Connie wandered by, and got to telling about her experience at a con in Finland. Evidently she'd had a bad health crisis, and had actually had a physical collapse. When she woke, the poor Finnish fans had plaintively asked if she thought she would be able complete the convention -- since she basically was the convention, being the only guest of honor. Trouper that she is, she made it through the con, but it was clear that it had been a frightening experience. She said she didn't want to go out like another author who had died at a con recently.
Being alone in a foreign country, her fear is understandable. But thinking about this other author, I couldn't help but think that one could do could worse. Recent medical issues have caused me to ponder this a lot lately. I mean, if I had to pick: to go out suddenly and unexpectedly while having fun, in the midst of your People, surrounded by friends? I can definitely think of worse ways to go. But on the other hand I guess I would rather to live to write the con-report....
Connie was collected by her dinner group, and our dinner group assembled shortly thereafter. I quietly stuck next to Bujold as we headed to the restaurant and contrived to sit right next to her at the dinner table. I felt a little guilty about this since my participation in the group which had arranged the outing consists mainly of intermittently reading the digests on the web. But nobody was elbowing me out of the way, so I decided that my karma wasn't too terribly overextended.
After we had settled in the restaurant and had contemplated our menus, I commented to Bujold that it must be a little weird having hoards of complete strangers treating one like a long-lost friend. She nodded but commented that the books provide a context that might be regarded as a formal introduction, so it wasn't too odd, as long as it wasn't actual stalking. Feeling shy, I didn't inquire further, but I wonder if she's had trouble with the occasional fan losing the me/you boundary.
There were something like fifteen people in our party. As dinner was winding down, I suddenly realized that fully half of the table was occupied by Susan's family. I haven't done the arithmetic, but a rough guess is, given their current doubling- rate, forty years from now Susan's mob will constitute the majority of Denver fandom.
Watching Sterling and his kid, it struck me that he was only a little older than Alexis is when I first met him. (These humans are amazing creatures. They start out as little squirmy inquisitive grubs, and if you feed them, talk to them, and wait long enough, they grow up to be actual, kind, intelligent, people that you can have interesting conversations with and everything! It's the damnedest thing.) I don't get a chance to talk to Sterling nearly often enough, but I was struck again by how sweet a person he seems to be. Susan and Caro: you make good people.
I got a chance to mention to Bujold that I really like Gregor. Particularly the sense of close, focused attention one gets from him when he's interacting with other characters. Watching Gregor deal with his intimates taps into a very primal need for me, and is another reason why I find Bujold's books so compelling. After reading one of those scenes I will often just have to put the book down for a few minutes and have a little cry.
This has prompted me to start looking at my own skill and experience with listening. I have recently realized with a bit of a pang that one of the reasons I'm so bad at it is that, growing up, I never experienced close attention unless I was in trouble.
"Gregor is developing quite a cadre of followers," she commented. I added that I'd like to see more of him, and she responded (approximately), "Gregor is kind of a Gothic hero. I don't think I want to get into his head too much. It's important to keep him a mystery."
A thought suddenly struck me: "Gregor is a negative-space character," I said. "You see him mostly in the reactions of people to him or the way they think about him. I especially loved the scene in Memory where Gregor is reacting to Haroche's comment that Illyan was not harmed by Haroche's plan. "It was fascinating watching Gregor's reaction -- but mostly it was fascinating watching Miles watch Gregor's reaction."
Here you have it: purest heaven on earth. Chatting casually with my favorite author, floating abstract ideas. Having them, by damn, listened to seriously.
I remembered something terribly clever my friend Cathy had once said. She'd regularly spill out these pithy little insights she'd garnered from whatever book she was reading. I would go read the book, and I could sort of see where it kind of vaguely hinted at the outlines of the idea Cathy had quoted. But I could never find the specific reference.
I finally figured out that the nuggets were in fact conclusions that Cathy had synthesized, based on the implications of what the book said. When I called her on this, she protested, "No, no, it's all right there in black and white!" Then she giggled. "Well, okay, maybe it's more in the white than the black."
I told this story, and then said that that Gregor seems to be kind of like that.
Bujold didn't say anything for a couple of minutes. (And someday I'm going to learn that this can mean that the person is actually thinking about what I said, and not just relieved that I've quit talking.)
She commented that the Lord Darcy stories are kind of that way. You don't actually see Darcy himself all that much -- mostly just what's going on around him. This, of course, immediately went onto my list of things to read.
Faith is another thing I got to gush about. In Komarr, Bujold builds an incredible opportunity for the first meeting between Nikki and Gregor. And her set-up for this was just tasty. But as a reader I felt some fear. Would she follow through? Would she do the potential justice? So many times, I've been disappointed by an author screwing up some delicious potential, either because they themselves missed it, or because they didn't have the nerve, interest, or skill to make it work.
I love Joe Straczynski dearly, and I loyally followed Babylon 5 through the fourth season. But I made no effort to watch the fifth season, because by then I was pretty thoroughly frustrated.
Straczynski is man of towering imagination and vision, but he persists in lousing up on the details. Repeatedly, the story would build to these grand, scintillating climaxes, only to have that particular plot point written off in some three-line bit of expository dialogue. After the third one of those, I quit allowing myself to get emotionally involved in the story, because more often than not, I'd find myself let down in the end. Because the potential was so great, the disappointment was even more bitter.
In A Civil Campaign, I finally decided that I can trust Bujold, which earned her yet another layer of my adulation. Not only did she deliver on the promise, but she went it one better with a scene that actually made me gasp out loud with surprise and delight.
It's such a pleasure to have an author deliver. It means I can give in to the story's dramatic tension without having that hovering anxiety about whether or not the author is going to screw it up and leave me holding an empty cookie jar.
Actually, somebody wandered by as we were getting ready to go and thanked Bujold for having avoided the Heinlein problem of declining quality with increasing popularity. He commented that it seems that authors, later in their careers, after they've made it big, so often become so busy that they don't put the time and care into the work that they did when they were starting out. Also, there's the 800-pound gorilla problem: when an author becomes too powerful to be edited effectively. How had she avoided that so far? this guy wanted to know.
Bujold responded with a little laugh and a caveat that she is still relatively early in her career. But I had kind of been wondering the same thing myself, since the core quality of her writing has remained remarkably good, and in fact has improved steadily over time. Over the course of the weekend, the conclusion I came to is that her quality derives from three sources: first and foremost, Bujold's own commitment to quality and her growth as an artist. Second, a long-term relationship with the editors at Baen. And third, evidently she has a pool of friends who are professional writers, with whom she trades manuscripts. All little points I was busily jotting down in my mental notebook.
Bujold's second readingBack from dinner, we settled in to an empty conference room and were waiting for a couple more people to arrive. I had my feet up, and somebody had just passed around a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from Hawaii. My new Simple Abundance reflex cut in: I paused in my chewing to look around and sigh. "Boy. Stuffed full of steak and lobster. Surrounded by wonderful friends. In the presence of my favorite author. It just doesn't get better than this."
One of the group who wasn't familiar with Bujold's stuff asked about the Vorkosigan series, and where best to start. Bujold explained that since they were written out of sequence, each book is self-contained. You can read them in any order. As you read them, though, the whole story gains more depth and dimension as you pick up bits of background and context. It's that "holographic" story structure Straczynski was going for in B5.
I complained that I dearly love Stardance, my all-time favorite novel. But I've nearly got the damn thing memorized by now. This doesn't seem to be a danger with Bujold's stuff for a while at least.
This is one of the things I love most about the series. First time through, I read them haphazardly as I found them. But last summer, out of desperation for something that would hold my attention, I sat down and read the series through start to finish in story order. And that's when I really got hooked. The Vorkosigan clan moved bag and baggage into my brain and took up permanent residence. It's weird. It's almost like these are real people I could call up on the phone.
Bujold told a horror story about selling the movie rights to The Warrior's Apprentice. She compared the experience of reading the script with the audience reaction to the the "Springtime for Hitler" scene in the movie The Producers. She shook her head in puzzled despair, "It doesn't cost any more to buy a good script." I believe she has resolved not to sell any more movie rights.
Somehow we got onto the subject of parenting, and Susan commented that when she was reading Barrayar, she kept having to put it down and walk around for a few minutes. "It's all right. You know it's going to be all right," she would say to herself, breathing noisily through her nose like a pressure-cooker about to blow. She explained her reaction: "You don't mess with the babies. You just don't." It says something both about Bujold's power as a writer, and about the strength of Susan's maternal response, that Susan's mental defense wasn't "It's just a book."
After the reading, Susan and Caro and I went out and pitched camp in the mezzanine again. Jane Campbell came and sat with us briefly. I complimented her on her jingly belly-dancing costume, and she preened.
I commented that I used to really enjoy costuming, but have gotten away from that in recent years. I finally figured out that much of that was the weight I've put on. I just don't like the rack I have to hang clothes on, so it's hard to get excited about the art-form. I said that I was looking forward to reaching my target weight, so that I could enjoy playing dress-up again. Jane responded that she thought that I should just do it anyway and "and not worry about the weight."
I know she meant well, but this sentiment frustrates me every time I hear it. Maybe it works for her, but she's fairly slim. I'm still coming down from the unhealthy amount of weight I put on last year, and I'm just achieving enough self-possession to work toward a weight that I'm happy with. Yes, I freely admit, I have to some extent bought into the advertising-driven cultural ideal of the svelte woman -- where it includes a healthy portion of good, solid muscle.
But for me it's an issue of self-determination. It's following through on something I want for myself -- especially something hard. Like seeing Dafoe in New York.
Sure, "accepting where you are," is important. Crucial, in fact. But it's only a first step. To fail to take the next steps is tantamount to self-betrayal. And that only results in self-hatred and erosion of my already thin faith in myself.
Growing up as the classic couch-potato, I've lately been astonished to discover how important my physicality is to me. Purely aside from the practical benefits, such as being able to safely walk down stairs absent-mindedly, it makes a tremendous difference in how well I cope generally. Being strong physically, I've discovered, is the foundation of being strong psychically. Life is just plain easier if I don't get exhausted within the first thirty seconds of, say, changing the light-bulb in the kitchen ceiling. Or resolving a conflict with a co-worker.
Breakfast with Susan and CaroPer my request, Caro called me right after she'd woken Susan and I hauled my entirely too poorly rested carcass out of bed. Some clothes and a splash of water to the face later, I was approximately ambulatory, and met them down in the coffee shop for breakfast. Caro and I chatted as we wended our way around the breakfast buffet. I don't even remember what we talked about, just that it was low-key and exceedingly pleasant. Caro is another person I don't get to talk to nearly enough.
After we'd sat down I made some small quip, and Caro exclaimed, "Oh no! Two of them!" It took me a minute to work out that she was apparently remarking on a similarity of humor between Susan and me. This pleased me inordinately, as I have long been a fan of Susan, in particular her talent for comic delivery. I felt wonderfully complimented by the comparison. A note of mild dismay in Caro's voice, however, suggested perhaps she was feeling a trifle double-teamed, admittedly unfair at that hour of the morning.
Courtney Willis, husband to Connie, wandered by, and Susan invited him to join us. After Courtney and Caro had traded teaching stories, the subject of Connie's Finland story came up. "She told it in a funny way," Susan said, "but you know, I was really scared there. We could just as easily be sitting around having that conversation, 'Well, I remember Connie....'"
I was struck by Susan's fear -- and that I was sensitive to it. Blessedly, I've never lost anyone I really cared about. But until very recently, I never let myself care enough to be affected. Too scared, I've come to realize.
10am: "My favorite short story" panelTowards the end of the panel, the moderator asked each of the panelists who their favorite writer was. Willis, without hesitation, said "Shakespeare." Bujold nodded. "I got very lucky," she said. "When I was fifteen, my brother and I spent a summer hitch-hiking around England, and we happened upon a Royal Shakespeare Company performance. So when my high-school English teacher tried to tell us that Shakespeare was boring, I knew better because I had seen it done well."
Shakespeare fascinates me because the work is such a vivid demonstration of the importance of affect to comprehension of speech. Over and over again, as I've tried watching various productions, I'm struck by the contrast between performances by actors who get it versus those who don't. When the actor can make it work, the Bard's words ring out bright and clear and comprehension is instant and unthinking. But when the actor can't, they might as well be speaking Classic Mayan for all of me.
What fascinates me most is that there seems to be a cultural, almost somatic dimension. Speeking cadences have to be right, as well as achieving the body-language. I don't I've ever seen Shakespeare done by Americans that didn't require some struggle to follow. We just don't have it "in the ear."
Interlude: Human lesson -- "Mint?"I caught up with Susan and Caro by the dealer's room after Bujold's morning panel. Susan was carrying a little dish of dinner-mints left over from their party the previous day. After the third time I filched one, she just handed me the whole dish. Dismayed (I didn't want to eat them all, and I knew I would if I didn't get rid of them.) I started offering them to any random person that walked by.
It turned into a fascinating little interaction exercise. Over the last year, I've finally begun to get the hang of catching the eye of strangers on the street and smiling in a way to get them to smile back. (Surprisingly tricky, actually.) I found, in offering dinner-mints, that there's a definite choreography to it. First, you encounter someone -- say, they're coming out of the huckster's room as you're going in, and there's that moment when you make eye-contact to negotiate who's going to go first.
I discovered that decision happens that is the best time for the offer. Hold the dish forward, smile, and say, "Mint?" There's a pause while they parse what you've said. Then they look down at the dish, and then you can see this fun little relaxation-elation as they decide Why, yes. I think I will, and take one, and smile up at you as they put in their mouth.
The timing is tricky -- too soon or too late, or you rush getting their attention, and it becomes awkward. But get it right, and it's a fascinating, delightful, quick little dance, most fun with a complete stranger. Brevity seems to be key, exemplified by the simple, quick monosyllable, "Mint?"
I don't know that one could get away with this other than in the intimate context of a smallish science fiction convention, where people have been carefully pre-selected. But within the bounds of a little micro-community, it's a fascinating study in human interaction. I may have to try this again sometime.
Heading up to the mezzanine after stopping at the front desk to ask about check-out time, I made a brief comment to a kid who had caught my eye a few times during the weekend. This provoked a long dissertation of the book he was carrying, and a couple of minutes I realized that I'd punched the tar-baby. As I mentally grasped for a graceful exit, I realized that my question about what I've been doing to drive people away was answered. People don't feel safe to stay unless they feel free to go.
This poor kid was a classic demonstration of the lost child's vicious cycle: he was desperate for any contact -- clutched and hung on to any scrap of attention. This in turn made me scared and evasive which, on some level I'm sure he sensed, which just made him more grasping -- and less responsive to my desire to leave. And on around. Shudder. I think I now finally get, intellectually and emotionally, the importance of "stop codes" in conversation.
11am: GoH speechesI only caught a couple minutes of J.R. Daniels' painting demos, but he caught my ear the instant he started his GoH speech: he's got a wonderfully deep, resonant voice, that I could listen to for hours The topic of his talk was "community." He told about his work with troubled kids in the Scout troop he leads. His speech was basically a pitch to us to find a way to make a difference in our own communities and step in.
Bujold's speech, "When Worldviews Collide," was fascinating. Through the miracles of modern technology, you can go read it yourself at her website!
You know, SOMEday I'm going to learn to read the program book at the beginning of the con. There was this guy sitting at the table with the other GoHs. Not your standard fan: arms and chest like a stevedore. Blond, almost-shaved hair. Thin little sunglasses. Intimidating as hell. And a nose that suggested no fear of oncoming assailants. Turned out to be Richard Elfman (brother of Danny). Highly improbable bio. (Toastmaster Kevin Anderson, after introducing Richard by reading out loud from the program book: "I don't have to make anything up.") When it came time for him to speak, he stood up, took off the glasses (which were prompted by a very late Saturday night), and turned into a starry-eyed kid telling stories about getting paid to play in Hollywood. I overheard several people comment that he is a thoroughly lovely human being. Five minutes in, I was kicking myself for not knowing about him, and following him around the con some.
K.W. Jeter posed the question (approximately): "What is 'story?' Why is story -- and music -- so intrinsic to human culture?" He pointed out that no even remotely healthy human culture has ever been found that doesn't have these two elements. (To which list I would add drawing and dance.) His answer, quoted from Joseph Campbell, if I understood correctly, is that music and story create human experience -- human culture. I'm not satisfied with this idea. A little too much like becoming a success by speaking your morning affirmations in the mirror.
As I sat listening to Jeter, and digesting the things that the other panelists had said, I found myself at last coming home. I'm not sure why it had taken me so long to plug in, but at last I was immersed again in the bath of powerful minds, wresting with big ideas. My People.
3pm: "Writing Characters Unlike Yourself" panelThis was probably the best panel at the con, for my taste.
Bujold brought up the subject of theme, and commented that the definition she'd learned in school was "Plot is what happens. Theme is what it's about," She found this unsatisfying. Working on her own fiction, she came to this definition: "Plot is what it's about. Theme is what it's really about."
Theme, to her mind, is an emergent property, one that kind of takes shape after the fact of the creation of the story. A major theme in Barrayar is the way identity is immolated and reborn through marriage and parenthood. We explore this as we follow five couples through the planetary civil war. But it was only some while after she'd finished the book that she came to this perception.
The question of how you write the opposite gender came up. Bujold reported "Bujold's Theory of Gender Development" which is that everyone starts out with a full complement of characteristics. As one grows, one kills off those pieces of oneself which don't match one's culture's definition of one's assigned gender.
This is consistent with my observation that the people I find most interesting are the ones who have stayed closest to the "middle" of the gender spectrum. I speculate that this is because they haven't thrown away bits of themselves to satisfy some cultural definition. They are therefore more "complete" human beings than those whose gender is more polarized. (I think this is one reason I find gays to be consistently more well-rounded than the general population. That, and the strength of character that's an almost inevitable by-product of membership in an oppressed population.)
This idea of psychic "apotosis" is part of Harville Hendrix's model for romantic attraction. We are drawn to people who embody the parts of ourselves we lost during development. And/or who stress us in ways that challenge our lost capacities.
One of the things that repeatedly blows me away about Bujold's stuff is the depth and fidelity she gets in characters which could in no way come out of her own direct experience. Military leaders. Aristocracy. Scientists. Apparently, one of her favorite forms of recreation is reading first-person historical accounts. There are limits to how useful some are, she says: she tells about the diary of some collateral relative who fought in the Civil War, which contains detailed complaints about the food, weather, and state of his bowels, interspersed with three-week gaps during which the battles occurred. Reading the formal historiies provide context for the personal accounts, but it's seeing the events happen through the eyes (and the emotions) of the participants that really provides the experiential depth, as well as giving a good sense of worldview.
Hearing this, Trey Barker responded, "You know, that's probably the best advice I've heard in about a billion years."
Bujold described her writing style as "sinking into a warm bath of characterization, and then," with a glint in her eye, "turning up the heat."
Yum. Made me wiggle all over, because that's exactly what I love most about Bujold's work. And it reinforces the importance of personal priorities and taste in the fit between author and reader.
She said some fascinating stuff about playing with viewpoint. She tends to write in single-character third person. Which is great, because it gives a very tight focus to the narrative. But it can be tricky, because the only thing the reader can see is what the character sees. She's playing with religion and theology in her new book, which is something she hasn't been able to do in the Vorkosigan series, because it's not something that comes to Miles's attention.
There's apparently a lot about this new world she's working on that's going to get left out because it just isn't available to the attention of the viewpoint character. If there's information the reader needs, you have to somehow find a way to slip it past the the main character. "In the white-spaces," she said, nodding at me. (And I had a Little Kid Moment: "She heard me! What I said made an impression!")
If you have multiple viewpoints running in the book, the possibilities become much more interesting. You can do things like have George know about information A, and Martha know about information B. But only the reader knows about both and, putting them together, suddenly has information C, which neither George or Martha has. Which, she pointed out, can be a great way to crank up dramatic tension.
Bujold made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when she voiced her idea that reading [fiction] as the closest thing we have to a form of telepathy, where you are able to step into and put on the worldview and experience of the writer. This idea is nearly identical to the thought that crossed my mind a while back that reading is like pulling on the writer's mind over your own and running it. Sort of like putting a new cam in the robot to change its actions and functions.
This is the function of story, to answer Jeter's question. Psychological software. Stories are like compiled experiences that the reader or listener can execute like a program, to derive feeling and wisdom. Actually, that's another one of those things that makes my skin prickle to think about. Imagine the Mind that could design the meta-programming to produce this function. The process is so elegant it just makes me squirm with glee. Like writing computerized atmospheric models to understand and predict the weather, only incomprehensibly more complex and powerful. Stories are little models which can be either empirical (anecdotes) or theoretical (fiction).
Human lessons, reviewThe "keep it simple" conversation style worked pretty well at the con. I did eventually get the timing and switching, though I still don't really know exactly what the crucial difference was. I found I developed a new script for situations where interactions are en-passant but potentially more involved, like wandering the halls or hanging out in the con suite. The three-to- five word rule still applied, and I found I wanted to be ready to be finished and say goodbye after each one. If the other person seemed interested in more, I just stick around for more short rounds on the same or related topics, until either they or I seem done. Oddly, I found myself needing to use this strategy in situations where I would have expected longer transmissions to be acceptable, like lunch conversations and so forth.
But even there, I've found I have to vastly simplify the thoughts I attempt to express. Sort of the "movie treatment" approach. Which is frustrating, because the ideas I most want to float tend to be pretty abstract and nuanced, and require complex expression. There's always been a lot I don't even attempt to say, but even moreso now. The flip side is that I do find the shorter expressions clearer and more focused.
At the end of the day...Everytime I read a Bujold book, I come away thinking "That's what I wanna do when I grow up!" (Well, one of the things, anyway.) Her approach to character, the raw quality of her writing...man! But the real product of the con for me continues to be that subtle, pervasive...satisfaction. I can't even really put a proper name to the feeling. I still don't feel any particular compulsion about connecting with Bujold (though I certainly wouldn't refuse if the opportunity were to present itself). But I did come away with this amazing sense of being somehow and very personally nourished by my time in her presence.
A lovely lady, a fabulous writer. And worth every ounce of my fatuous adulation.
--Wednesday, 3 November 1999
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