Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December 26

Christmas turned out just fine. I got the presents all wrapped and under our Christmas tree, which is a six foot tall Norfolk Island pine in a pot. The nice thing about a living tree is, you don't have to take it out after Christmas, and I can take the ornaments down when I feel like it. One year they stayed on till March.

Patrick and I stayed in all day and took it easy. I kept the radio on, playing Christmas music, except when I wanted to hear the sound effects of my new computer solitaire game. It began snowing in the early afternoon and kept on snowing. It's still snowing this morning: wet snow, that has lies in thick layers on the evergreens and coats the bare branches of the deciduous trees. Every twig is outlined in white.

Sometime around four I decided I needed some exercise and cleaned the kitchen and bathroom. Afterward, I decided I didn't feel like cooking dinner. Pat decided he wasn't interested in eating dinner. We had been snacking on cheese and crackers and cookies all afternoon. So we ate more cheese and cookies. I played more solitaire. We listened to more Christmas music.

A good day. I had been hoping for snow on Christmas, and it came, the third snowfall of this year; and I really do like opening presents. These days it's more interesting to watch other people open the presents I got for them.

Best wishes for the new year. May we all expereince peace and justice and live the best and most useful and happiest lives we can.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


It's snowing this morning, falling pretty thickly. The wind is picking up and whistling outside our windows. Two more days to Christmas, and I haven't finished wrapping presents. One present is still on route from a catalog sales company which shall remain nameless, because Patrick reads this blog.

I turned on the radio yesterday morning, which I don't usually do. It was set for KBEM, the station of the Minneapolis School District. Usually KBEM plays jazz, but Saturday morning is a a bluegrass program. I decided I didn't want to listen to bluegrass and turned to KSJN, Minnesota Public Radio.

Of course, this time of year KSJN was playing Christmas music.

I do not come from a religious background. My father was raised Unitarian, which always stuck me as odd. Why would an Icelandic immigrant family be Unitarian? But it turns out many Icelandic immigrant families were. They were too small a community to establish their own churches, and the Unitarian church was closer to the Icelandic form of Lutheranism than anything else they could find. My father slid away from Unitarianism as soon as possible. (I love the idea of a backsliding Unitarian.) When I knew him, his only interest in religion was in the art it produced.

My mother grew up among missionaries in western China. By the time she went to college, she'd had enough religion to last a lifetime, and a healthy dislike for hypocrisy and prejudice, which had been -- in her opinion -- rather too common in the missionary community. But she loved Christmas and was well equipped with Biblical quotes. She was especially fond of "it's harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven." She also liked to say, "We are put on Earth to help one another," which is not from the Bible, but is a good brief summary of many Biblical passages.

In any case, Christmas was a big deal in our house: the tree, the presents, Charles Dickens, who was my mother's favorite author, snow falling outside the big picture window in our living room, and especially the music.

Well, this year, when I turned to KSJN, I discovered I did not want to hear Christmas music.

I know exactly why this is.

The right wing's noisy claim to the Christian religion and every part of Christmas, including the pagan parts, has had an effect on me. Right now, I associate the holiday and the religion with them. I know there are many good people doing good work -- the Lutheran ministers and Catholic nuns and decent lay people that Patrick knows in his work. But right now, when I think of the religion, I think of the right wing.

Patrick just emerged from the bedroom, looking frazzled -- he's had a rough week, and wearing a tee shirt that says, "Don't be afraid to share."

I need to get out of this mood. If my mother could love Christmas after being raised among missionaries in the first part of the 20th century, I can love it here and now.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Yesterday Patrick and I went to the Mall of America (aka the Megamall and Hugedale) and walked all three levels. There were plenty of other mall walkers, hearty middle aged and elderly people, many in sweats. One woman was zipping along carrying two bottles of water.

For those of you who have never been to the Megamall, it is a giant cube. There is an amusement park in the middle. Four levels of shopping surround the park. Three of the four levels have continuous walkways, very much like an indoor running track. Mall security would probably stop you if you tried to run. But walking, even fast walking, is fine. We started on the ground floor and worked up, around level one, then around level two, then around level three, ending at a Caribou Coffee for coffee and scones.

We got there a little after nine. expecting that the stores would be closed. Most were open, and there were sales going on: 50% off everything. How does this bode for the Christmas shopping season?

In any case, we got in our walk. I picked up wrapping paper at the Hallmark across from Caribou Coffee. Then we went to Art Materials, a wonderful art supply store, to do some Christmas shopping. Then we had lunch at a noodle shop, went grocery shopping and came home.

I asked Patrick to go out for a while today. I plan to wrap presents and put them under our Norfolk Island pine, which is taller than I am and serves as a Christmas tree, then go to a local coffee shop and read and maybe write.


Since the last time I posted about the weather, winter has come to Minnesota. There have been two snowfalls, and the temperature has been in the zero to mid twenties range. This is cold enough so the snow doesn't melt. On the colder days, the warm air and fine particulate matter that comes out of chimneys turns to white steam or smoke. It's wisps coming from the chimneys of houses and great billowing clouds coming from the smokestacks of the downtown power and heating plants. The tall buildings of both downtowns are wreathed in long, drifting trails of whiteness.

The snow has turned to gray or black at the edges of the streets and highways. But it's still white on lawns and the roofs of houses.

This feels so right to me. It's the way the Twin Cities ought to look this time of year. People ought to be bundled up in parkas and boots. I am currently wearing my Wintergreen jacket, made in Ely in far northern Minnesota and trimmed with Norwegian ribbon, and a Dale of Norway headband with a traditional knit pattern. I ought to break out my mukluks, also from Ely, but I haven't yet.

I feel sorry for some of our new citizens: the man with an African accent working in the car wash that Pat and I used. There he was, wrapped in a scarf, spraying soapy water over Pat's car.

The Somalian women in their long skirts and winter parkas, climbing over banks of snow, don't always look entirely happy.

Though I should remember that many young Somalians have spent most of their lives in Minnesota. This is home town weather to them. And the gentleman from Africa might be here to escape a civil war. Working in a car wash (especially in the winter) strikes me as a job I would never want, but it's better than being in a war.

As the famous song tells us, war is good for absolutely nothing. Washing cars is one of those ishy jobs that ought to be honored for its utility. Car washes make life a little better for the community. A Minnesotan with a clean car in the middle of winter is a happier person.

My mother, who grew up in southwestern China, never got used to the weather in Minnesota. Her idea of home was a place with banana trees and rice paddies, with snow on the mountains, but not in your front yard.

With luck, the children of our new citizens will grow up to play ice hockey and cross country ski. Though it may be too warm for such sports in a few more years.

Let's all enjoy winter while we can and encourage our cities to build artificially frozen, outdoor skating rinks. I want to see Minnesota kids play hockey outside under the lights on dark winter afternoons.


My friend Ruth pointed out that "stories" in English tends to mean short stories. We don't have a word that includes fiction of every length.

Short story is a length category for the Science Fiction Writers of America Nebula Award. It's the shortest length. Novelette and novella are longer works of short fiction. All of these are defined by word count. This leads to a problem for me. What do I call short fiction that is longer than 10,000 words?

(This is usually a problem that comes up when I am writing a short biography for some purpose. "Eleanor Arnason has published five novels and 30 short stories." Wait a minute! Many of those short stories were novelettes or novellas.)

Usually, I end by thinking, "I say they are all short stories, and I say to hell with the problem."

Because I am in an Old Norse kind of mood, I checked the Old Norse words for story and short story.

Thattr is the word for short story. It means a single strand within a rope, a section or division, and a short story.

Saga is the word for every other kind of story. Stories from novella length, and maybe novelette length, are called sagas. It comes from the verb "to say" and means what is told, a statement, a tale, story, history, the events which gave rise to a story, a report.

What I found interesting is -- thattr implies that a short story is incomplete, a strand or a section. I don't know where this leads, except it gives me another way to look at short stories.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Stories, histories and sagas

This is in response to a comment on my Peg Kerr post. Lissa said that many people see blogging as story telling. She is absolutely right, and I was misusing the word "story," which comes (I just checked) from the Latin "historia." Story does not mean fiction, though I tend to use it as if it means fiction. It means first, a history, then, a recital of events which may be either true or untrue. You have to go a long way down the OED definition to get to "a mere tale" or "baseless allegation."

The Old Norse word "saga" comes from "segja," the verb to say. It means narrative, something told or written, and can be either a true history or a work of fiction.

There are really fine story tellers, who tell true stories. I think of Jim Northrup, who is Aniashanabe from the Fond du Lac Reservation near Duluth. He currently writes a column for the local Native American newspaper, but he has also done stage performances.

Other local story tellers include Jim Stowell, Kevin Kling and Garrison Keillor, all masters of spoken narration. Some of the stories they tell are true. Some are not.

What I meant to say is, I want to tell made-up stories, a written-down fabrication or lie.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Suspension of Disbelief or Lack Thereof

This follows on the preceding post...

What makes a reader lose belief in a book?

My friend Ellen give up on Red Mars after an error in physics. I sort of dimly remember what the problem was. I didn't notice it till it was pointed out to me, and then it didn't bother me especially. Robinson got technical help from Charles Sheffield, which meant he tried to get things right. He -- and maybe Sheffield -- slipped up. Everyone is human.

On the other hand, when I got to the point in R.A. MacAvoy's Damiano series when she mentioned the Jesuits existing in the 14th century, I had Ellen's response of shock and rage. Everyone knows the Jesuits are a Counter-Reformation Order and did not come into existence till the 16th century. I mean, really!

I've had people from SCA tell me I got the sword smithing in my first novel entirely wrong, but they enjoyed the book none the less.

I asked Ellen to check the science in one of my stories. After she finished reading the story, she said, "Is your science bullshit? Yes. But most of the science in science fiction is bullshit. The question is, is it irritating bullshit? The answer is no."

We then had an argument about the alien geometry I had in a footnote and reached a compromise that Ellen could sort of tolerate.

I don't have a good rule for when I will tolerate mistakes and when I will not. Or when I enjoy an author playing games with facts and reality, and when I get angry.

Whatever happened to R.A. MacAvoy? She did some fine writing and then vanished, as far as I can tell.

When Not to Listen to Members of Your Writing Group

This is something I posted on the Wyrdsmiths blog:

Wyrdsmiths had an interesting meeting last time. Three members got ticked by stories by other members. I won't talk about the two other people, but I was one. In my case the problem was, the story in question is about the Norse gods. Most of what we know about Norse mythology comes from medieval Icelandic texts; and being Icelandic descent, I tend to get possessive.

I've thought about it and decided, I am going to go with my feelings -- within limits. I won't be abusive, and I won't keep telling the author his idea of the Norse gods is wrong, because SF writers do have the right to a little creative flex. But I will double check his Old Norse, if only because it's interesting to dig around in Old Norse dictionaries.

I've got him on one word, though it took some digging, and a flash of insight on the edge of sleep, when I realized what the root to the word he used was. It's always great when you get a blinding flash of light and say, "Aha! Leggja!"

Granted, a scholar would have realized what the word's root was at once. But I am not a scholar.

Anyway, I have decided that this is a situation where the author should not listen to criticism. My reaction to the work is completely individual and not useful.

Even good critics have blind spots and hobby horses.

Peg Kerr

I had lunch with Peg Kerr today and told her how difficult I found blogging. She asked if I had ever kept a journal.

No, I said.

That was probably the problem, she told me. She has kept a journal for decades and has no trouble keeping a live journal, It sounds as if she reaches a lot of people, which makes me feel a bit envious.

What is the line from archy the cockroach? "Self expression is the need of my soul."

But communication is another soul-need for most writers and artists. I have never thought it was enough to write and put the writing in a drawer. I want my writing to reach other people.

I write almost no nonfiction: no journals, no memoirs, very few essays, a handful of poems. Since I was a kid, my gift has been telling stories. I told them before I could read and write. I guess this is common, but most kids give it up sooner or later. I didn't. I love reading nonfiction, but I want to tell stories.

Of course, I go through long periods of not writing; but I think I always know what I want to do.


I have not posted for three weeks. No reason, except maybe my need to hibernate this time of year. My third novel is titled Daughter of the Bear King. The heroine is a south Minneapolis housewife who discovers that she is actually a were-bear. At the time, I owned a house in south Minneapolis.

I do feel a kinship to bears, as does my brother and Patrick. Patrick does not slow down in the winter. He likes cold and doesn't mind dark. But my brother and I definitely feel the need to hibernate, which is not easy when holding a regular job.

I've been doing a lot of reading: economics, physics, biology, all written by people who know how to write for readers outside their field of specialty, though Lee Smolin on what is wrong with contemporary physics was a stretch.

The physics was -- in part -- because I'm working on a time travel story, and I am looking for something to make it more interesting than the usual time travel story.

And I'm reading the stories written by my writing group. It's amazing how prolific they are. I've been in the group several years and submitted only half a dozen stories at most. Three members of the group are tearing through one novel after another.

I remember LeGuin talking at Wiscon about having to save energy for writing. I tend to think of my problem as procrastination or laziness, rather than age. But there is no question that working a day job, belonging to a couple of writing groups, maintaining a modest home and reading all take time and energy; and maybe I don't have the energy I had at 20.