Farewell to a friend I never met

I want to write about Terry Pratchett, and I don’t even know where to begin. He wrote so many wonderful and consoling things about death (or, y’know, Death) that I feel the tiniest bit guilty for being so very sad he’s gone. I feel like I should be able to face it with some kind of humorous equanimity, something like:

“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.” — Good Omens

Ahahahaha! And yet. I has all the sad. I’m afraid I’m going to have to play it straight.

I never read any of his books until I moved to Canada, and even then I had several false starts. I tried reading The Colour of Magic and I didn’t get very far. It looked like a pile of undifferentiated jokes to me, and while the jokes were individually hilarious, in a heap they were rather overwhelming. It was like eating nothing but cake, all the time. Another one that I remember disliking was Maskerade, which as far as I could tell was nothing but a send-up of Phantom of the Opera. It was funny enough, for what it was, but I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I’m not sure why I kept trying.

Well, that’s not quite true. I kept trying because I had just moved to a foreign country where I knew no one outside my own household. I kept trying because I missed my friends back in Philly, and I’m pretty sure they were the ones who’d recommended Pratchett to me in the first place. I kept trying because I really, really needed a friend right then, and miraculously, I found one.

Going Postal was the book that finally opened the door for me, the one that made me realize there was a human behind the mountains of jokes, a human who was preoccupied with many of the same things I was. The Tiffany Aching books followed close on its heels, as well as Thud!, and by the time I’d gotten through those I felt like I knew exactly who I was dealing with.

And he was something remarkable, something I’d never quite seen before. He was using the twin fists of humour and fantasy to punch the world in the face. These were, in fact, extremely serious books about difficult and hard-hitting subjects, but he’d disguised it so cleverly that you couldn’t quite tell. I think the mask did slip a bit in his later years, and that was why I found his more recent books more accessible. I find it easier to read the early ones now that I’ve glimpsed the wellsprings beneath them; his preoccupations have been the same all along, and now that I know what to look for I see them everywhere, shining like diamonds.

I wrote a little tribute to him on the Terry Pratchett Appreciation Tumblr a couple years ago, and I don’t think I can sum up his influence on my writing any more perfectly than this:

Nothing was out of bounds, not death, love, politics, or religion. A fantasy writer could say exactly what needed to be said and could run any thought experiment conceivable. It was a revelation, and it set me free.

I cried when I learned that he had died, and I cried again later that day when a middle-school student asked me who my favourite writer was. “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “how deeply books can move you, and what a strong connection we can feel to someone we never met?”

I used to call him, only half-jokingly, my long-lost time-travelling twin, or my spiritual uncle, because we were preoccupied with so many of the same kinds of questions. We didn’t always come to the same conclusions, but his were always humane, hilarious, and well worth considering.

“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” —Reaper Man

Thank you for everything, old friend. I’m going to miss you.


Io Saturnalia, my darlings

IO, darlings! IO!

It's that time of year again, when we don our red caps and pretend we know Latin!

It’s that time of year again, when we don our red caps and pretend we know Latin!

So we kicked things off last night with our feast. Atypically, we ate at a nice restaurant instead of sweating all day over rock-hard barley rolls. It’s not that we’re getting too old and soft to eat rock-hard barley rolls, it’s just that ever since the Great Flood hit our apartment, our classical cookbooks have been packed away. [Note to self: future Jethro Tull filk, “Too Old for Barley Rolls, Too Young for Rye”] Last night we also gave gifts. I got an ASTOUNDING octopus brooch:

So bright! So beautiful!

So bright! So beautiful!

If you’re wondering why I would want an octopus brooch, above and beyond the objective awesome of it, well, here’s a good place to start.

I also got a really big hug… after giving my son a whammy bar for his guitar. He really, really wanted to wham up some songs, apparently. [Note to self: Wham on? Whammerize? Whamminate? Look this up. And you call yourself a writer!] The best thing about Saturnalia is that we can drag it out for several days. Tonight we’re going to see The Hobbit: Battle of Ten Thousand Whammy Bars [NB: look this up, Rachel!], and then tomorrow night my husband and son are going to a Canucks game while I stay home, put my feet up, and pretend I’ve never heard of hockey. A good time will be had by all! I hope your holidays, whichever you wham upon, are full and lovely and happy, too!


Super Flemish

Do you ever find yourself wishing you could see R2D2 and the Hulk dressed in Renaissance Flemish clothing? Well, now you can.

That is almost certainly more than enough damage to your retinas for one day.


I Eat at Chez Nous: a YES Sandwich with a Glass of Wine

Here it is, at long last: the post wherein I finally compare a YES song to a sandwich. I have carefully considered which song to use; I wanted something representative, something long and complicated and full of whales YES-ness. Well, I found it. Those of you who are nerdy brave enough to handle it, join me below the fold at my favourite YES-centric eatery: Chez Nous.

The rest of you may want a real sandwich, after all this. Anything with melted cheese sounds good about now.

Read the rest of this entry »


Today’s reading

Do you ever have one of those days where you read two articles in a row that inadvertently seem to play off each other? Today I read “Why Do Americans Love to Blame Teachers?” and then “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” and I’ve enjoyed the feel of them bouncing around together in my brain.

Teachers are – or are supposed to be – the quintessential grown-ups. They’re second only to our parents in training us, disciplining us, and being figures of awe. I have long wondered whether the vilification of teachers (something I think of as a recent phenomenon, but that first article demonstrates is not) isn’t a knee-jerk “you’re not my boss any more” kind of reaction. People remember chafing against restrictions more than they appreciate the patience that was shown them.

The “Death of Adulthood” article is a bit of a slog if you’re not a dude, but he does eventually get around to the female side of things. What interested me most is that while he argues (effectively, I think) that American adult literature is pretty puerile, he doesn’t bother to analyse actual YA literature – the books that are so popular – at all. He as much as says he doesn’t read it, which is why he probably doesn’t realize that while adult literature may be pining for a return to lost youth, YA literature (in my opinion) is a road-map toward growing up.

Maybe people do feel unmoored without the old order and the patriarchs to enforce it, but I think YA literature addresses that. It’s hopeful literature, to my mind. Here are the things that really matter; here is the way we overcome our limitations, work together, and build a future worth having. The world is full of possibility and potential. I don’t think you’re ever too old to need a reminder of these things.


Snark vs. Smarm

There is nothing quite as wonderful as an essay that pinpoints something you hadn’t quite been able to put a name to previously, something that has been deeply bothering you in ways you couldn’t articulate. In this case, it hasn’t just been bothering me; it’s been obstructing my airways. This article, “On Smarm,” was like an intellectual Heimlich maneuvre. It’s long, but very worth reading for anyone who’s ever felt paralyzed by the demand to say something “nice” or say nothing at all.

Faced with that choice, I go silent very quickly. And I’m not a mean person, friends. I’m not. But it’s so easy to step on toes that you don’t even know are there – toes where there shouldn’t be toes! Most people have invisible toes, in absurdly huge quantities! If I am charged with the burden of never hurting anyone’s feelings EVER, I can’t do it except by staying silent. Indeed, no one can. Everything hurts somebody. People are amazingly woundable.

Before I posted that bit of mockery yesterday, oh the anxiety I felt! I was riddled with it. I almost didn’t publish, and even then I had to put that disclaimer at the beginning. Nothing but silliness to see here, folks. God forbid I should assert an opinion about something.

My anxiety isn’t all bad. It led me to make sure I focused my mockery at an idea – an idea abundantly deserving to be mocked, I must add – rather than a person. There were lines that bordered on meanness; I blunted those, or omitted them entirely. I think the results were good.

But maybe I don’t have to fret so much. When did I become so gun-shy? Eh, I know when, and I don’t really want to talk about it. But here’s the point: it has always been my rigorous belief that if I write honestly, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes my honest reaction is mockery, or criticism, or anger. I never wish to hurt anyone, and when I do, I will face it and deal with it. But I don’t have to be stymied by fear.

Tip o’ the hat to Alyssa Rosenberg for pointing me toward that essay. She also thinks Seraphina would make a good movie, so you know she’s a person discerning intellect and excellent tastes.


Dogs Are People, Too

So sayeth an interesting NYT article about MRI scans of dogs’ brains. Of course, I suspect anyone who loves dogs could have told you dogs have emotions. I witnessed a display of unbridled canine joy just yesterday morning, when my husband returned from a week in Japan. It’s hard to doubt it once you’ve seen our whippet bounding around, running in circles, and frantically snuggling up to him the moment he sits down.

What’s more interesting to me in this article is the argument that emotions comprise personhood. In our household, we do believe Una is a person, but we would claim it’s because she has a “personality”. Emotional reactions are part of her personality, but not all of it by any means. The article, however, implies that emotion should make the difference between our treating animals as “things” and our treating them as “people”.

But should it? Are emotions the most important measure of personhood? I don’t mean to imply that I have the answer. This is something I think about a lot, however, and play with in my writing. I’ve created a species of dragon who do not experience emotions in their natural form, but are subject to emotions in human form, and find them profoundly disconcerting.

Are dragons in dragon form not “people”? I think they are. Is having emotions somehow superior? Some of my characters believe that, but I don’t. On the flip side, dragons sometimes don’t consider humans “people” – they’re too irrational!

The challenge and the goal, I think, is to accord respect – and a recognition of personhood – to minds that are different than our own. Even just among humans, there’s a lot of variation. Recognizing animal personhood may not be feasible until we can genuinely value all the different flavours of our own.


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