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The Plague and a Zoo

A Visit to Como Zoo and Japanese Garden  

Three silverback gorillas 
knuckling in the sun,   
two feather-duster ostriches, 
too hot to run, 
picking grass along a fence, 
while giraffes with shambling elegance  
perform a kind of mating dance.     

Bears and monkeys! Maybe cranes,   
though not in view. (The sign remains.)  
A deep, green garden,   
a silent pond,  
shining koi,  
and so we end.

I went to Como Zoo with a friend yesterday. I did not write this poem after that visit, but visits to the zoo are all pretty similar. It was pleasant.

The best part is probably the Conservatory, which is a classic 19th century conservatory, full of palm trees and orchids. We skipped the Japanese Garden, due to fatigue and heat.

I don’t know how the rest of you feel. I am unsettled now that Patrick and I have been vaccinated and can (in theory) go out and about. I have now been out with friends three times, all of us vaccinated and taking precautions when around others: masks and distancing and much washing of hands. Each time I go out, I feel like a hermit crab that is being forcibly removed from its shell. Yes, it’s worth it, but boy it is hard. (A hermit crab would probably not feel anything was worth getting pulled out of its shell.)

It’s possible we will get back to normal. What is normal? And in which countries? And when will the next pandemic arrive? One problem with writing SF is, one has a pretty dark imagination. In SF only the idiots say, “This isn’t a problem. We will get back to normal.”

Birds

Human men ought to study birds more. If you want a date, you have to work at it. Build a bower for the lady as bower birds do. Do a fancy dance like cranes. Sit on top of a tree and sing your heart out like many song birds. Develop magnificent plumage. Help raise the kids. Lots and lots of birds do this. When your sweetie is on the nest, bring her fish like ospreys…. Nothing says love like a good-sized fish…

What does not get dates is writing angry, anti-woman posts on the Internet.

Assimilation

I was reading the group blog Crooked Timber yesterday, and there was a discussion of immigrants. When do they become assimilated? The answer of course is, when the Borg finally win. But aside from that… The English apparently have a test. Ask people who they rooted for in world cricket matches. If they root for India or Pakistan or the West Indies rather than England, they are not assimilated.

One of my childhood memories is what a big deal it was when members of Scandinavian royal families visited Minnesota. They came here because the state was very heavily settled by immigrants from Scandinavia. They were visiting their relatives, and their relatives were excited by this. “Our king!” “Our crown prince!” At some point, the visits mostly stopped, I suspect because the older members of the immigrant community died, and the younger ones felt less connected to the Old Country.

A number of years ago, I met a young man at the local Finnish store. He was probably third generation Finnish-American. He was studying Finnish at the university and planned to move to Finland. My father’s parents came from Iceland, so I am the second generation born in North America. I studied Old Icelandic at the university, because Modern Icelandic wasn’t offered. I’ve been to Iceland twice. My brother has been many times. Over time, connections attenuate. But not always. The wonderful Minnesota poet Bill Holm, like me a couple of generations away from the Old Country, was described by Icelanders as being more Icelandic than they were.

There is no question in my mind that I am American. But it’s also clear to me that I am Icelandic-American. When do people assimilate? Some people get rid of the Old Country connections as quickly as possible. Some remain floating between two cultures, which is not a bad place to be. In 3 or 4 generations, the connections may vanish — or may not. Why does it matter?

Oz and Detroit

Thinking about children’s books led me to think about Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book:

“O is for Oz. Do you want to visit the wonderful far-off land of Oz where the wizard lives and scarecrows can dance and the road is made of yellow bricks and everything is emerald green? Well, you can’t because there is no land of Oz and there is no Tin Woodsman and there is NO SANTA CLAUSE! Maybe someday you can go to Detroit.”

When I moved to Detroit in 1968, it seemed like a magical place to me. Every time I turned down an unfamiliar street there was another car plant. Many had been designed by the firm of Albert Kahn, a legendary industrial architect, and they were beautiful. The Detroit Art Institute had the Diego Rivera frescoes of industry in Detroit, which are still there, though most of the factories are gone, torn down. I’d go to Greek Town, which is apparently a tourist trap now, but was a genuine Greek neighborhood, full with taverns full of Greeks. I’d buy a bottle of Retsina, bread and cheese and to to Belle Isle, a park in the middle of the Detroit River, and sit under a tree and eat and drink.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if someone had given me the choice of going to Oz or going to Detroit, I would have been hard put to make a choice. As a kid, I would have picked Oz. As an adult, I think I would have gone for Detroit. Those Rivera murals are wonderful, and so is Belle Isle and Retsina.

And so was an Albert Kahn factory, lit up by the night shift, shining at the end of an unfamiliar street.

The Surly Capybara and the Friendly Crocodile

I was looking at a photo of a capybara rubbing against a cat, and remembering all the photos of capybaras being mellow around other animals. Often they are lying down with other animals resting around them or on them. Turtles sitting on cabybaras, Ducks sitting on capybaras.

Suddenly I wanted to write a children’s book about a surly, unfriendly capybara. While all the other capybaras are rubbing up against cats and lying down so ducks can sit on them, my capybara walks around grumpily, cursing.

And the capybara will meet a crocodile, who wants to be friendly and loved and have ducks sit on him, but everyone is afraid of him because of his mouth full of sharp teeth. And somehow the two of them will become friends: the surly capybara and the friendly crocodile.

The capybara is named Bernice, and the crocodile is Fred. After they become friends (sort of), Bernice uses Fred to frighten people away. (Don’t bother me, ducks, or the croc will eat you.) Of course Fred finds out and is devastated. He goes off and sinks into a pool of water, with only his eyes and nostrils above the surface, and feels sad and lonely. Of course the capybara realizes that she actually likes and misses Fred. Even a surly cabybara needs at least one friend. She goes to him and apologizes to him. Slowly, grudgingly, Fred forgives her. He comes out of the water, and they lie down side by side, and ducks come and sit on them.

The end.

Discord

I am on an old-fashioned email list elsewhere, and there is discussion about moving the group to Discord. Knowing nothing about Discord, I read an article and was immediately horrified. It was described as having all your friends always around you. Yeeg. I really like the measured quality of a list. It doesn’t demand immediate attention. You don’t have to worry about losing track.

This led me to think about being a writer. I like written words. I like having time to think about them and revise them. If you write, you are likely to be passionate about communication — but not face-to-face communication. A fiction writer speaks through the masks of characters to an audience that is not present. There are a lot of removes here. Obviously, some writers enjoy face-to-face communication and are good at it. I’m not bad. I like doing panels and can enjoy talking to people at cons. But it’s a different experience from sitting alone, preferably in a coffee shop, and writing and rewriting till the scene works.

I miss sitting in coffee shops…

There is, I suppose, a control issue in writing fiction. There is certainly a craft issue. You don’t have this control or craft in the real world. There’s a T.S. Eliot line that is floating just outside my conscious mind. I tracked it down. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “This is not what I meant at all. That’s not it, at all.” — In fiction and poetry, you can get the lines right.

The Blob

It’s a dank, gray day in later April. I’m not sure if it’s raining now, but the streets are wet. The trees are leafing out. I realized this year (for the first time) that a lot of that pale green is flowers. My friends with allergies know. This is the time of year they cough and sneeze. Still and all, I think there are leaves — or the hope of leaves — among all the flowers.

I have finished the first draft of a story: 53 pages and 14,700 words. The problem is, the story is a blob. There not enough plot, and I have not a clue what the story means. Also, I suspect the story leads toward another story. Maybe a group of stories. Maybe a novel. I am too old to begin a novel. I will focus on the story. I need to do a second draft, inserting plot and meaning. It might turn out to be entertaining.

A Question

(This began as a facebook conversation. I have not posted the comments by other people, since I don’t have permission.)

A reader wrote to me, asking why I only described action and conversation in one of my novels. No interior monologues. I actually think I put in thoughts at certain points. But I am not going to go back and read an ancient novel to be sure. Anyway, I no longer know why I did it. Influence of the Icelandic sagas would be my best bet. Though the interior story is fairly recent, isn’t it? From the development of the bourgeois novel? I grew up on all kinds of literature: fairy tales, myths, medieval legends, 19th century novels, mysteries and science fiction. A lot of these were not especially interior.

I guess the next question is, do we know how much people had interior monologues before recent times? (Shakespeare. His characters have a lot of stuff going in their minds.) I’m not arguing that people in the past were stupid. But it’s possible that you need training to over-think.…

I can imagine a saga character thinking, “I have to kill Thorvald. I have to kill Thorvald. I need to get the hay in. That colt looks promising. I have to kill Thorvald.”

He might — or might not — get more complex than this. Thorvald said something snippy to him at the Althing, and that requires revenge.

I think Shakespeare shows us that people were capable of complex thought before the modern novel. But in the sagas, you mostly get the complexity through conversation and action, and you are supposed to know enough to figure out what is never said or said very quietly. What I suspect is that the modern novel and modern psychology may lead people to keep a little Freud in their brain, which the vikings did not have. (“Am I butchering this Englishman to get his silver, or am I doing it because he reminds me of my father?”)

I think I need to drop the idea that earlier generations didn’t have psychological complexity. (I never meant to say they had different brains.) Maybe what has changed in how this is portrayed. In the Laxdaela saga the heroine is asked, late in her life, which of her three husbands she loved the most. She replies, “Him that I treated worst I loved the most.” That one line tells you a lot that you haven’t known previously. There is certainly complexity in this.

Why did I rely on exterior descriptions in my first novel? Heaven knows. I don’t. Too much of what I write is unplanned and never verbalized. I’ll say it was the influence of the sagas and folk tales and myths, all of which I love. They are all in one way or another laconic. And, as one of the people commenting on this facebook post pointed out, Minnesotans of Nordic descent are known for leaving things unsaid.



Becoming a Writer

I did a Q & A at ICFA (the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts) a week or so ago. It was via Zoom, of course, which was okay, because I am not crazy about Florida.

One thing I talked about — is the way the past year reminds me of the late 1960s, when I lived in Detroit and the world seemed violent, unjust and beyond my control. I have noticed that I am worrying about my health, which I did in Detroit in the 60s, and which (I think) is a response to a world out of control and dangerous and wrong. (Always worry about something you can — to an extent — control.) (When you can’t fix the world, fix yourself.) Anyway, I told the story about how I wrote my first publishable fiction.

I had just moved into a house with three other women. It was in Highland Park, a small town entirely surrounded by Detroit. This was the city itself, not a suburb, and it was not entirely safe. (Remember that this was the city as it used to be, full of houses and auto plants, with a murder rate of 800 a year. I loved that city. It was full of energy, but not all the energy was positive.)

The first night I slept in the house I woke to screaming. The house was a side-by-side duplex, and I thought the screaming came from next door. I went downstairs to the one roommate home, my friend Kathe. I thought I heard running steps as I went down, but didn’t really pay attention.

It turned out the person screaming was Kathe. She had been waked by a click as someone tried to open her bedroom door. Having remarkable survival instincts, she woke completely, leaped across the room to hold the door shut and screamed, thus waking me.

We searched the house and found at least one window open. And we called the Highland Park police. They arrived with drawn nickel-plated guns. You have no idea how big and shiny a gun like that is. And they decided that Kathe had dreamed the intrusion.

So they left. Later our two roommates arrived. They were political activists, who were concerned about the rights of the prisoners in Jackson Prison. We could not get them interested in the safety of the house. It turned out they had been leaving a ground floor window unlocked, because one of them has lost her keys. We wanted to put good locks on all the ground floor windows and make sure no one was ever home alone. They were not interested. The safety of their roommates did not seem important. Instead they were focused on the guys in Jackson, who certainly needed help, but we needed help, too. Kathe and I moved out a few days later. Within a week a woman down the street, a friend of ours, was raped in her bedroom.

The police then called Kathe and wanted to talk to her. (They hadn’t filed a report on our break in.) She said, “Screw them all,” and drove to California.

I did the best job I could of securing my new apartment, which was several floor ups. This made the windows pretty safe. But I put a grid over the inside of the front door, because it looked to me as if it could be kicked in. It was years before I could sleep without a light on. And I told this story to people at my job. The women were angry. The men told rape jokes. A male friend of mine told me that all men imagine raping women.

I felt angry and powerless in the face of sexism and serious stupidity. I’m not sure ‘fail’ is the right word here, but…The cops had failed me and Kathe by not doing their job. Our highly political roommates had failed me and Kathe by not caring about the safety of women. My co-workers, at least the men, had failed me by thinking rape was funny. At least one male friend failed me.

All I could think to do was write, and for the first time in my life I began to write fiction that was good enough to sell. One the stories was “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons,” which is in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction. Another was “A Clear Day in the Motor City,” which was reprinted in Thomas Disch’s New, Improved Sun.