Thursday, May 31, 2007

Carnival of Hope Reminder

Please remember that the deadline for the June Carnival of Hope is a week from today: Thursday, June 7 at 5:00 PM PDT. You can either use the BlogCarnival submission form or e-mail me directly (SusanPal at aol dot com) with the permalink to your post and a 2-3 line description of what it's about.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dear Anonymous,

I'd address this to you by name, except that you didn't leave one. So please know that I mean no disrespect by calling you "anonymous." It's the only name I have for you, so it's the one I'm using.

In one of my recent posts, I complained about the fact that some people are rude to Christians, and/or ignorant about Christianity, at WisCon (which, for those of you just coming in, is a feminist science-fiction convention held every Memorial Day in Madison, Wisconsin). Here's the comment you left:
The whining about not feeling comfortable as a Christian is disengenuous at best. Seriously, you can do better.

Here's what it's like to really be uncomfortable in Wisconsin:

Did the people of the state say they wouldn't recognize your marriage because you're Christian?

Did people follow you around threatening to rape or beat you because they thought you were Christian?

Did you feel unsafe at the local hospital because the ONLY place in the area that the ems folks take rape victims is a Christian sect hospital? A hospital where ONE person is allowed to prescribe emergency contraceptives? And if that person's not on duty or sick or something, no emergency contraceptives can be prescribed for you there. Period.

Feel safe?

How about if you can't legally marry your beloved because the loving Christians of the state of Wisconsin voted to make it illegal?

How about if you can't cover your beloved with your medical insurance as straight, married folks can, because the state doesn't allow it. Feel safe?

Thinking about adopting? Anyone likely to discriminate against you because you're Christian?

When's the last time you felt really threatened because you wore a Christian symbol? Men following you around threatening you because you walked with a friend?

The Episcopal Church in the US is way better than most Christian churches in the US about gay and lesbian rights. But pretending that you really feel unsafe in any way because you're Christian in this country is misrecognizing serious threats to other people.

The great state of Wisconsin may not have jumped up and down to welcome your Christianity to a convention, but they didn't threaten your basic civil rights, either, or did they? Did the state government come threaten you? The local police?

Get stopped for driving while Christian the way our black citizens in rural Wisconsin sometimes do? Get arrested for nothing because you're Christian?

The whining by Christians is dishonest. Freedom of religion doesn't free you from criticism or scepticism. It does free you from abuse and discrimination by the US government. When's the last time the US government discriminated against you because you're Christian?
You're right: the US government hasn't discriminated against me personally becaue I'm Christian. (Christians in other countries have been discriminated against, even killed, but of course, I don't live in those places.) But then, I never claimed that it did. All I said was that that some people at WisCon were uncivil on the subject. Whatever "whining by Christians" you're referring to, I wasn't doing it. I'm not "Christians." I'm one, specific, individual Christian who was kvetching about a specific, individual, localized situation. (Criticism and skepticism don't bother me, by the way: bigotry does. Let me define my terms here: "bigotry," in this context, means assuming that all members of a given group are the same, rather than being individuals. Jerry Falwell and I couldn't be more different.)

Is being treated dismissively and rudely as bad as being threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights? Of course not. Does the fact that I wasn't, at WisCon, threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights mean that I should resignedly accept rude behavior from people who are reacting from fear and partial knowledge?

As far as I can tell, you think that the answer to that question is yes. (If I'm wrong, please correct me!) I think the answer to that question is no.

I don't think it's ever okay to treat people as less-than. Your position appears to be that only people threatened with rape, murder, or denial of civil rights have the right to be upset about being treated badly, and that anyone else should be grateful to merely be insulted and dismissed, because things could be so much worse.

Seriously, we can all do better than that.

There's no doubt at all that things could be much worse, for both of us. Have you ever been a victim of genocide in Rwanda or Darfur? Been an AIDS orphan in Africa? Lived in a cardboard box in Haiti? Lived in one of the many countries where women still don't have access to education or political power, or where no one at all has reliable access to food, water, or medical care? According to this logic, neither of us has the right to complain about anything, simply because we live in the U.S. I suspect we agree that the conditions I've just described are hideous, and that we all need to do whatever we can to right and prevent them. That doesn't mean that we can't also be upset about other things and work for other causes (not all of which, of course, will strike our fellow citizens as important).

Part of the subtext of your comment -- and again, please correct me if I'm wrong! -- seems to be that as a white straight woman, I can't empathize with the terror felt by people of color or sexual minorities. For whatever it's worth, here are some of my own experiences of being terrorized:

* Being beaten up nearly every day in junior high school by black bullies because I was white. This didn't, by the way, make me hate or even distrust all black people, although I can't say I was fond of the bullies; it did make me very grateful to the brave, decent black kids who stuck up for me (the mostly-white teachers weren't doing zip). It also means that I'm not entirely clueless about what racism feels like, even if I haven't been on the receiving end of it my entire life.

* At age nineteen, being trapped in an apartment with a hallucinating alcoholic who was throwing furniture at me and howling, "I'm going to make you bleed!" I screamed for help; I know the neighbors heard me, but none of them even called 911. Luckily, I got away without physical injury: lots of other people -- of all genders, ages, sexual orientations and ethnicities -- aren't so fortunate. The laws against domestic violence, welcome as they are, haven't kept it from happening.

* Five or six years ago, having my house repeatedly vandalized because my husband and I had put up campaign signs urging people to vote against a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Our first sign was stolen; we put up another; it was ripped down; we put up another further in our property, which was also ripped down; we put one on top of our garage, whereupon we heard a crash as somebody threw a ladder against the house to rip that one down, too. The woman from whom we were getting the signs -- who's lesbian and knows we're straight -- was concerned enough about all this to call the police, who called us to ask if there was anything they could do to help us. We told them we didn't think so, but thanked them for offering. And sure, it was only getting signs ripped down: but believe me when I say that we worried plenty about arson and rocks through windows. The police told us we were right to be worried about that. So even though I'm straight, I know what it's like to be scared while sticking up for minorities.

Oh: and, by the way, yes, I have been chased and threatened with rape -- merely because I was female.

I'm not saying any of this to try to make you feel sorry for me: I'm indeed very privileged, and have also been very lucky. But all of the incidents I just described were "really uncomfortable," as I define that term. Were they "more serious," in the sense of being scarier and more physically dangerous, than being snubbed at WisCon? Of course. Am I grateful that nothing worse happened at WisCon? Of course. Does all of this mean that the bigotry of a few people at WisCon is okay and that I should feel fine about it?


See, here's the thing. My experiences with terror have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to feel terror. My experiences being belittled and put down have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to feel belittled. My experiences being made to feel less-than have turned me into someone who never wants anyone to have to feel that way.

What this means is that I'm firmly opposed to genocide, hunger, poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia . . . and having people be snarky about my faith -- without having any idea how I practice that faith, how I define it, what it means to me -- at WisCon. I can be opposed to all of those things at once (indeed, my faith emphatically calls me to be opposed to all those things at once) because all of them are wrong.

But not everyone who's been terrorized or belittled responds this way. One response -- one I've seen before, and which your comment appears to fall into (please correct me if I'm wrong!) -- runs something like this: "Only people who've been terrorized or belittled the exact same way I have count, and they're the only ones who deserve support, and they're the only ones I'm going to support."

This kind of thinking is very human and understandable. It also has some unfortunate logical consequences: 1) It means that those who subscribe to it are in some sense actually invested in suffering, which has become the only way they recognize worth, and 2) It means that the very worthiest allies are those who've paid the ultimate price and have died for their positions or as a result of their identitities.

Martyrdom is heart-wrenching, and the martyrs who've been produced by too many causes -- the Martin Luther King Jr.s, Oscar Romeros, Matthew Shepherds and Teena Brandons of the world -- are heart-wrenching symbols. Their stories can, and often do, help rally people to action. But dead people, by definition, are really bad at the everyday, undramatic, behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating political change. They can't stuff envelopes, sign petitions, lobby their elected representatives, write letters to editors, have persuasive conversations with friends, put campaign signs on top of their garages, or vote.

This means that they aren't the most effective allies. The most effective allies are people who haven't been killed or incapacitated. The most effective allies, then, aren't always those who've suffered the most.

There are lots of different kinds of Christians. I'm one of the ones (and we're a sizeable group) who believe in separation of church and state, in civil rights for everybody, in feeding the hungry: in love, rather than hatred or fear. I'm one of the Christians who don't believe in burning witches. I don't believe that everybody has to agree with me to be saved: I think the world would be a really boring place if it worked that way, and I think God is far too big to be contained in any box constructed by humans.

In my work as a volunteer ER chaplain, I've advocated for homeless patients even though I've always had a place to live. I've advocated for patients who were sexual minorities even though I'm straight. I've advocated for non-white patients even though I'm white. I've advocated for prisoners even though I've never been in prison. And yes, I've also advocated for Republicans, conservatives, and fundamentalist Christians -- even though I'm a liberal Democrat and proud member of the Christian Left -- because their politics weren't the point. Their suffering was the point. I don't want anyone to suffer, and I'll try to alleviate suffering however I can. That's what being a Christian means to me. I can't do everything, and some of my efforts are undoubtedly pretty pathetic, and even the good efforts don't always work. I try anyway.

Some of the hospital patients I just listed, if asked, might say that I couldn't possibly be a good advocate for them because I myself wasn't suffering enough, or because I didn't share their particular identity politics. I advocated for them anyway, even the ones who clearly didn't like me. I'd do the same for the people at WisCon who were rude to me.

That doesn't make the rudeness okay.

(Because of my volunteer work, I was particularly struck by the description of the terrible hospital in your area. Is there nothing anyone can do to advocate for change in that hospital? Lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, letters to hospital administrators? Is this a situation where the hospital feels it can do whatever it wants because it's in an isolated area without much competition? Has anyone talked to the media about this stuff?)

One of my goals in educating the rude people at WisCon is to make them feel safer. Christians aren't necessarily out to get you. You don't have to flee in terror every time you see a cross. We don't all burn witches.

And so forth.

My young female university students often comment that they aren't feminists. In response to this, I always ask, "Does that mean that you don't appreciate having access to higher education or being able to vote? Because, you know, earlier generations of women who called themselves feminists paid very high prices to give you the right to those things. Some of them went to jail; some of them died. So please never take your rights for granted."

That usually makes them think. I'm glad I can make them think, but I'm also gladder than I can say that we've made at least some headway on the feminist front, and that my female students can, at long last, take some of their rights for granted.

Won't it be wonderful when sexual minorities and non-whites and practitioners of every faith can also take things for granted? Human rights? Civil rights? Civil behavior? A certain level of personal safety?

Isn't a world where we can all take those things for granted the world that all of us should be working for?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


We're home, finally. Our three-hour layover in Denver became something more like four hours because of fierce thunderstorms. We didn't have good luck with layovers this trip -- and we never seem to have good luck with Denver.

The scariest airplane moment of my life was flying into Denver, back in the 80s, when I was on my way to Seattle for Norwescon. There was a gigantic blizzard, and as we were making our very bumpy approach to the landing strip, the pilot announced -- cackled, really -- "Well, folks, we're using a brand-new auto-guidance system! I sure hope it works, because right now, we have ZE-RO VISIBILITY!"

TMI, cap'n. I think he must have had too much caffeine, or maybe he just really had it in for passengers that particular day.

Today's flights were smoother than that, thank goodness. I came home to a ton of nice blog comments, especially on my last post (and Elliot, thanks for the link!), but I'm way too tired to answer any of them now.

And so to bed! G'night!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Last Night in Madison

WisCon is over. We're spending a quiet night in the hotel room before our very early departure tomorrow morning. Gary's watching TV, and I'm blogging. I'm really exhausted after moderating a 10 PM panel last night and a 10 a.m. panel this morning, so I'm not even going to attempt complete coverage of the last few days.

Standout moments:

* Learning that the Shelter galley went for $100 at auction. Woo-hoo! Thanks to The Other Susan who bought it; Emily, I'm sorry you didn't get it, but in just a few weeks you can get a real-live corrected copy for $15.00, so it's sort of a win-win situation. The person who gets the galley in the Tiptree auction donates to an excellent cause; anybody who wanted the galley but backed off from the bidding process gets to read the book for less money.

* Talking to the Other Susan and learning that she's recommended Flying in Place to all of the counselors in the women's health clinic where she works, and that some of them have recommended it to clients.

* A terrific dinner, and thoroughly enjoyable conversation, with Jeff and Ann Smith.

* The Domestic Fantasy panel was such a hit that people want to do it again next year. We even spawned our own in-joke, involving rabbits -- don't ask -- and a Secret Signal: people who were at the panel and saw each other later in the hallways were supposed to greet each other with Little Bunny Fu-Fu hopping gestures.

* The "Writing as Spiritual Discipline" panel drew a surprisingly large audience, twenty people or so, even though it was running opposite the Tiptree awards, which had gotten a late start.

* The "Religious Left" panel went well, I think, and several people thanked me for organizing the running series (and one woman wants to be on it next year). This included someone who saw me in the Dealer's Room afterwards and said, "I'm a Lutheran pastor, but I'm not comfortable telling people at WisCon that, because, well -- I don't need to tell you. You know why."

Indeed I do. To my distress, I'm still seeing too much evidence of kneejerk anti-religious sentiment at WisCon. During the Dessert Salon, someone admired the "Be Prophetic: Disturb Society" button I was wearing on my purse, and asked me where I'd gotten it -- but then reared back as if bitten and made noises of disgust when I explained that I'd picked it up at the Pax Christi table at the Farmer's Market. (I gave him a Pax Christi pamphlet anyway, and he liked it and kept it.) All but one other member of the "Writing as Spiritual Discipline" panel was in the "I'm spiritual but not religious" camp, which is fine, except that as the only person there who identified as a member of a mainstream faith tradition, I wound up feeling a bit patronized by several folks (mainly in the audience, not on the panel). Ordinarily I'd have chalked my sensitivity up to fatigue, but Gary had the same reaction, so I don't think it was just me.

I was very grateful this morning when someone told me that she'd really enjoyed that panel, that she thought it was "beautiful."

At the "Religious Left" panel -- which included three Episcopalians, a Muslim, and a Jew, women and feminists all -- I talked about the importance of being "out and visible" as members of our faith traditions in public, and we discussed various ways to dismantle us/them barriers, to see everyone as "us" instead. One of the Episcopalians, who's considering ordination to the priesthood and who volunteered in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, said that the guy who trained the volunteers told them, "You can judge people or you can serve them: you can't do both."

I told the story of how Ernest Gordon, who was a WWII prisoner of war, "practiced the discipline of seeing in the face of each of my torturers the face his mother had seen when she cradled him in her arms when he was a baby." That was how he overcame hatred and bitterness, which he felt would have destroyed his soul even if his body had survived otherwise unharmed. I asked everyone in the room to think of someone they hated or were angry at, and then to close their eyes and, for a minute -- which I timed -- to practice seeing that person as a beloved baby. Afterwards, several people said the exercise had been difficult, and I recommended that we all try to practice it for a minute a day.

Folks at that panel were all over the Pax Christi material, and my few remaining pamphlets were eagerly claimed.

But to give you some idea why I started the "Religious Left" panels, ours ran at the same time as one about "the crutch of religion." A Jewish woman who's been on my panel for the last several years, and who asked to be put on it again this year, was disappointed to find herself on that other one instead -- but said she felt she had to be there to stick up for organized religion. I'll be curious to hear from her how that went!

People at WisCon are usually so thoughtful and well-educated, and it's frustrating that there's still such a large blind spot on this subject. I know a lot of the hostility comes from bad personal experience with the judgmental side of religion, but at the same time, I don't like being stereotyped and dismissed any more than anyone else does.

I think that next year, I'll propose a panel called something like "What's Good About Religion," except that no one would come to it except people who already knew what was good, or potentially good, about religion. I'd love to find some way to do a pro-faith (or at leat pro-religious-tolerance) panel that wasn't just preaching to the converted.

Does anyone out there have any ideas?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hasty Dispatch #2

Yesterday we went to the Farmer's Market, which was unbelievably crowded -- as always -- but where I got a pretty summer jumper and also stopped by the Pax Christi booth, where I picked up some flyers to wave around at the "Religious Left" panel and also picked up a button that says "Be Prophetic: Disturb Society."

The flyers include a list called "Just for Today," with ways to promote peace. Here's a sample:
Today . . . I will live in peace with God, my neighbor and myself. I will bring peace to my patch of the earth.

Today . . . I will believe that world peace is possible. I will remember that hope is the most important gift I can give my world.

Today . . . I will not party to pessimism nor join the indifferent.

Today . . . I will love my enemies. I will pray for them. I will try to see our differences from their point of view.
There's also a list of more concrete peace-making actions. It's a fine little pamphlet!

We left the Farmer's Market to have a delightful lunch with Alexis; I'm badgering her (along with Lee!) to attend WisCon, although Alexis' medical boards may interfere next year.

The Julie Phillips/Dorothy Allison presentation turned out to be just Julie Phillips, because Allison had come down with such an awful case of poison oak that she couldn't get on a plane. But Phillips spoke engagingly about her book, and read a little from it, and Gary and I both enjoyed her very much.

In the afternoon, we went to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which was in a pretty building, but where most of the work left me underwhelmed. (Also, Reno's art museum is prettier.) Wisconsin art seems to feature lots of antlers and insects. Also, there was a gigantic sculpture of a plucked chicken. The best things about the museum were the see-through staircase and the rooftop sculpture garden.

Our second delightful meal of the day was dinner with Barbara Land and Jackie and Phil Brewer, at an Afghan restaurant on State Street.

The auction was great fun, as it always is. Ellen Klages is a manic, hilarious auctioneer. Space Babe was back, despite rumors that she'd outgrown the costume (she's a freshman in college now). Someone had made a Faery Handbag; we passed a hat to collect money to buy it for Kelly Link, and the final came to somewhere around $450 (all proceeds are donated to the Tiptree Award). Someone had donated an ARC of Shelter, but there was only one bid on it, so I believe it didn't go to auction (I know the person who bid on it really wanted it, though, so that's okay!).

I did a quick round of the party floor: put in an appearance at the Tor party, where the noise level was already overwhelming -- but where I had a good conversation with Lawrence Schimel -- and then went to the Haiku Earring party, where I got a pretty pair of earrings Elise named "Memory Perfume;" I can't quite remember the haiku I wrote to that title, but Elise liked it enough to let me have the earrings. We also had a moving conversation about her partner Mike Ford, who died this past year.

Today: a "meet the panelists" lunch for tomorrow's Religious Left panel; the domestic fantasy and writing-as-spiritual-practice panels; a swing by the Dealers Room to sign books (Rina just called to tell me that there's someone down there who has about fourteen of my books -- but I haven't written that many! -- and wants me to sign them); the Dessert Salon; the GoH speeches and Tiptree Award presentation.

Yesterday was pretty quiet, but today will be very full!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hasty WisCon Dispatch

Hello! We're having a splendid time; here's a quick report. I'm not going to include links to authors and books because it will take too long, but please do look folks up on Google and Amazon.


The Shopping! The Shopping!

Madison is indeed shopping paradise. Gary and I did State Street yesterday. I got a heavy silk Hawaiian shirt, two new pairs of shoes, and a new purse (total cost: $140). Gary got a new rolling suitcase and a new jacket. Yay, State Street!

The Gathering! The Gathering!

This is a WisCon tradition where people mill around tables featuring various activities -- tarot, tea-leaf readings, hair braiding, and so forth -- as an excuse to schmooze. My favorite activity was the clothing swap, not really a swap at all, but a giveaway: folks bring stuff they no longer want, and other folks come and try things on and take what they like. With the help of our friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, I scored a beautiful red blouse that looks like raw silk (it's really polyester/nylon, and thus washable), a purple mumu/housedress thingie that's great for lounging, and a gorgeous long wool sweatercoat with a Southwestern pattern that used to be Delia's.

We also ran into Nisi Shawl, who reads for the Science Fiction Book Club, and who told me that she's recommended Shelter to them. I hope they take her up on that!

The Dealers! The Dealers!

In the Dealers' Room, we stopped by the Tachyon table, where I signed some books, and where we ran into Lawrence Schimel, an old friend from Yale. Nobly resisting acres of books -- since I have other acres at home waiting to be read -- I instead bought a small silver celtic cross to wear at the hospital (since the one I've been wearing looks too much like a Basque symbol, and people keep asking me if I'm Basque), and a small blue Ice Bat UglyDoll to hang on my new purse. Very silly, I know, but it makes me happy.

The Opening Ceremonies! The Opening Ceremonies!

We sat with our friends Philip and Jackie Brewer and Jackie's mom Barbara Land, a former Reno-ite I know from UNR circles, and whom it's always a delight to see at WisCon. There were funny skits and awful punning songs. It was great fun.

The Party! The Party!

Tachyon had a book launch party for Ellen Klages, Carol Emshwiller, and me. It was lovely. Ellen showed us all her pieces of Trinitite, glass made from fused sand created by the atomic test in New Mexico, and told us about talking to school kids about her wonderful book The Green Glass Sea. (Go read it. Now.) Seventh graders have never heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and know nothing about the atomic bomb and what it does: Ellen said that when she tells them about it, their eyes get very wide, and then they badger her with questions for an hour.

I also had a long chat with Gary Wolfe, who wrote the Locus reviews for The Fate of Mice and Shelter, and who seemed relieved that I liked the second; he'd been afraid I wouldn't, because parts of it are critical, but heck, I'm critical of that book too, and I'm just glad someone understood what I was trying to do!

Various folks bought my book and asked me to sign it. Yay! A woman asked me to sign her WisCon yearbook, and then analyzed my handwriting for me. According to her, I'm organized (not!), economical (not!), even-tempered (nope), have trouble trusting (yep), am creative (I guess so), and am slightly egotistical (for sure). She also told me I have a pretty accurate sense of myself (I hope so!).

I met Jeff Smith, who's been reading the blog. Such a pleasure to have a face to go with the name!

Rina Elson from Tachyon gave me a Ghirardelli "Citrus Sunset" chocolate bar as a book launch gift. She apologized that it wasn't a magnum of champagne; I told her that since I don't drink but do love chocolate, this was much better.

The Reading! The Reading!

I read with Louise Marley, Alma Alexander, and Caroline Stevermer. We had a small but appreciative audience -- of more than one person! We were opposite a bunch of parties and Laurie Marks' GoH reading, so I'm not surpised the audience was small. Folks seemed to enjoy the snippet I read from Shelter, for which I was grateful.

Today's Plans!

The Farmer's Market. Lunch with Alexis. The Julie Phillips/Dorothy Allison reading. The art show. Dinner at an Italian place we passed last night, or maybe at the Great Dane Pub, where we ate last night, so Gary can sample more of their beer. The Tor party, although Gary will be giving that a miss because he finds the noise levels on the party floor intolerable (so do I, but I enjoy the parties for short periods anyway).

Fun! Fun!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

We Got to Madison!

Our flight from Denver to Madison was delayed two hous, and we'd already had a two-hour layover, so we had a four-hour layover. But that was okay; I got a lot of reading done, and Gary watched movies on my laptop.

So we've checked into the hotel, eaten dinner, bought coffee and breakfast stuff -- again, we have a little fridge in our room, which is very handy -- and registered for the convention. And we've already seen people we know wandering around the streets and the lobby: this is my fourth or fifth WisCon (I can't remember!), so by now, many faces look familiar.

We have a nice room with a view of a corner of the lake. Gary's enjoying the TV. I'm enjoying the free wireless.

Con activities don't start until 1:00 PM tomorrow, and State Street has some majorly excellent shopping, so I foresee PowerShopping in my immediate future.

My more immediate future, however, involves going to bed. We got up at 4:00 a.m., and I'm tired!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Off to WisCon!

We're leaving tomorrow morning, first thing! Yay! We splurged on economy-plus upgrades for both flights, so we'll have extra legroom! Yay! Madison's supposed to get thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon, which could strand us in Denver! Boo!

Gary and I have spent all evening throwing every piece of clothing we own into various suitcases. I love having a husband who overpacks as much as I do. I brought some fun outfits for evening parties, and we both brought sweaters and Goretex windbreakers, because it's supposed to rain.

The cats, of course, were unbelievably fascinated by all of this. At one point, all three of them were inside my suitcase, which prompted me to sing a silly song:

The cats are in the luggage
and the corn is on the cob.
The cats are in the luggage
and the corn is on the cob.
The cats are in the luggage
and the corn is on the cob.
We're going to Wis-con-sin!

We're trying to make plans to get together for lunch with Alexis, who wrote a blog post for me listing good Madison restaurants. Thanks, Alexis!

Program items:

On Friday night from 8:45 to 10:00, I'll be part of a group reading called "Voices from the West," which I believe will be in Michelangelo's coffeeshop rather than in the advertised conference room (let's hope this gets better attendance than my other recent readings!). On Sunday from 1:00 to 2:15 p.m., I'll be on the "Domestic Fantasy" panel; on Sunday from 10:00-11:15 p.m., I'm moderating the "Writing as Spiritual Practice" panel, and on Monday from 10:00 to 11:15 a.m., I'm moderating "The Religious Left Takes to the Streets" panel. I proposed all three of these panels, so I'm happy that they were all accepted!

I've been militant about doing faith-friendly panels because too many WisCon folks are reflexively hostile to all organized religion, especially Christianity. After the "Religious Left" panel last year, someone came up to me and said, "Thank you for making WisCon safe for Christians." That really made me feel good. (The Religious Left panels have all included at least one Jew and one Muslim, women and feminists all. Yay!)

I should type out program descriptions for you, but I'm too lazy, so here's a link to the whole program. As you can see, there's lots going on at WisCon!

The hotel has free wireless, and so does Michelangelo's across the street, so I should be able to blog.

And now to finish packing! Wheeeeee!

Mortality Fatigue

My hospital shift this week was, even more than most are, full of reminders of mortality: two patients who'd come to us from home hospice care; a patient who'll soon be in hospice care; a patient grieving the recent death of a beloved spouse; a patient, initially cheerful, who began weeping with worry over a son in Iraq; and a code (although that patient was alive when I left the hospital).

In August, I'm going to be the guest speaker at a three-hour med-school seminar on end-of-life issues. I'll be talking to the students about grief and leading them in some writing exercises about the subject. This shift was definitely material for that, but right now, I'm merely numb, unable to extract teaching moments. I'm glad that I have a few months before the seminar.

I keep reminding myself that there was balance in the shift, too: lots of cute little kids who loved the stuffed animals I gave them. I'd gone to the dollar store and stocked up on teddy bears and bunnies and handpuppets, and put each in a individual plastic bag so it would stay clean in the ED. I gave lots of those away, and the nurses gave some away, too.

Also, many patients requested prayer, and were exceptionally grateful for my presence. So in that sense, it was a good shift.

But I've been beating myself up over an unfortunate interaction I should have avoided. Near the end of the shift -- actually, a few minutes after I should already have left -- the family member of one of the dying patients asked to talk to me. This family had asked to see the chaplain when they arrived, and had repeatedly thanked me for my prayers whenever one of them saw me in the room or in the hall. So when the relative motioned me into a relatively quiet hallway, I was happy to oblige.

"Is anyone in your church pro-life? I'm very involved in that, and we're always looking for new people."

I shouldn't have let myself get pulled into a discussion, but I was tired, and I felt closer to this family than I have to many others. I should have said -- what should I have said? "It's not appropriate for me to discuss politics here"? "I'd love to talk, but I'm past due to go home"? I honestly don't know.

Instead, I tried to explain as respectfully as possible that a) I don't know where most people in my parish stand on the issue and b) while I'm profoundly ambivalent about the issue myself, I'm simply not comfortable denying legal access to safe, low-cost abortions.

Predictably, this unleashed a barrage of statistics from the relative, who wanted me to know just how many babies have been killed since abortion was legalized. I tried to explain that my focus tends to be on what we aren't doing, what we need to do, for kids who've already been born: homeless kids, hungry kids, uninsured kids. I talked about what a struggle it is for even my affluent friends to find affordable daycare.

This developed into an intense, moderately heated discussion, as medical staff walking past gave us mystified looks. It stayed respectful, though: we agreed that it's an incredibly complicated issue, and reassured each other that God loves all of us. Both of us tried to understand the other's point of view. At the very end, I told the relative, "Good luck. You're facing something very hard right now," and only then did it occur to me that at least some of the urgency about saving the unborn came from the relative's powerlessness to save the beloved patient.

Duh. Brilliant, Susan.

And how would I have responded differently if I'd realized that sooner? Probably I would have said, "It's awfully hard not to be able to save people, isn't it?" That was the subtext of the conversation anyway, but if I'd recognized it earlier, I might have been able to get the relative to talk about the more imminent loss, the immediate loss, and about the theological issues it raises for this very devout family.

Is this a teaching moment after all? The presentation of deferred grief in the relative of a dying patient?

Instead, I feel like I fell flat on my face and did a really bad job for someone in pain, although at least I learned from it. (Gotta love that 20/20 hindsight.) I'll be far more sensitive to this sort of dynamic in the future. That doesn't make me feel better about this interaction, though. I just have to trust that another chaplain, somewhere down the line, will be better at getting to the core issue.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Grand Rounds

This week's edition is up, and I'm pleased to be in it.

Happy reading!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Contest winners! Plus, Rorschach Rocks!

Jenni from Chronic Babe has picked the winners of her "Beyond Casseroles" contest, and I'm thrilled to be one of them! You can read all five winning entries here. I'm really looking forward to getting the book, which should come in very handy at the hospital.

Speaking of the hospital, I wrote three more ED sonnets this morning. Five more to go! Woo-hoo!

And speaking of chronic illness, I got an idea on the bus back from the beach the other day: I think I'll try to use the "Explorations in Clay" course I'm taking this summer to make prayer objects, maybe boxes, for people with chronic or drawn-out medical conditions. Various rocks I picked up look like medical conditions to me, which is what gave me the idea. My current thinking is that I'd imbed the stone in the lid of the box, with a design around it that somehow transforms the image on the stone. That may be too abstract and unworkable, though, especially given my currently nonexistent technical skills. Maybe I could imbed each stone in a plaque, with a short prayer inscribed on it? Or would it be too weird to include something that "looked like" the illness or condition in an object intended to promote spiritual healing?

I like the idea of doing that, though, because people with chronic conditions have to find ways to incorporate their medical status into the rest of their lives. Instead of pretending the condition isn't there, they have to cope with it daily (or on a fairly regular basis, anyway, as migraine sufferers do).

So here are some pictures of rocks that remind me of illnesses or chronic conditions. You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

This looks like a migraine to me, like a head with white jagged lines going through it -- or maybe like schizophrenia, with all that extra stuff going on and fracturing what most people call reality.

Or maybe it looks like some sort of x-ray. What do you think? With all of these, I'm really curious to hear what readers see in them!

Yes, it's a new party game! Rorschach Rocks!

These two rocks, put together, look like bones or joints to me, and would make a great object for someone with arthritis or back pain.

Or maybe for someone waiting for a knee or hip replacement? Hmmmm . . . .

Although they could also look like a mother with a rather large child, couldn't they? The Mineral Madonna!

The hole in the middle of this rock has what looks like another small rock inside: to me, it looks like a tumor, and I'd like to incorporate it into something for someone with cancer . . . although I guess it could represent a hernia or a stoma, too, or even depression, which makes people feel so small in a vast, uncaring universe. Or it could simply stand for the state of feeling overwhelmed by medical matters.

This very smooth rock, gray with a stripe of orange at the top, also reminds me of depression: one that's just started to open up to let in some sunlight . . . or maybe of sunlight being beaten back by depression? You can see it either way, which I suppose would make it doubly applicable. Whatever object I make with this rock -- and being realistic, I won't have time to make many of these in six weeks -- I may keep it for myself.

So those are the medical rocks, but I took pictures of some others, just because they're neat.

Here are my three cross rocks. The one on the left is from two years ago; the other two I found this year. I'd like to have the one on the left turned into a pendant with a very simple sterling bezel setting.

Here's one for all you math fans! Doesn't this look like the Greek symbol for pi? The quartz veining on this is exceptionally pretty, too. (But then, I think nearly every rock's pretty in one way or another. How can people not be fascinated by rocks? I just don't get it.)

This one really looks like a Goddess figure to me, and would make a great gift for a Wiccan friend. It would be easy to make into a necklace, too: just wrap some twine or wire or leather lace around the groove, and you have your setting.

The rock itself is plainer than some of the others, though: dull gray, with no interesting marking or veining. So it might need some other decoration.

I call this little rock "Saturn's Ring," and I think it's a very simple, elegant composition. The ring loops around the back of the stone, forming its own perfect oval. This one has to stay loose, so the admirer can turn it and see the design from all angles.

And that's not all the rocks I have . . . they're on shelves, on top of dressers, on my desk at work. I found all of these on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, but I also have some very old ones from Montauk, where we used to vacation when I was a kid, and friends bring them to me from other places. I know nothing about their scientific descriptions or chemical composition; all I know is that I like them.

Hey, everybody needs a hobby!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Reunion in Berkeley

The Berkeley reading today was as poorly attended as yesterday's in San Francisco: only one person came to hear us, although he arrived on time. But Ellen and I read for him and Gary and the bookstore folks and the Tachyon folks and each other, and it was very pleasant.

The fact that Ellen didn't get many people either (although she's local and had e-mailed everyone she knew) actually made me feel better: it's not just me! We chalked the poor attendance up to gorgeous weather and competing events: a ball game, UC-Berkeley commencement, and the Bay to Breakers race.

The best part of the day, though, was before the reading. Gary and I got to Berkeley about 11:30, and, mirabile dictu, got a parking space on Shattuck close to the bookstore. I even managed to parallel park on only the second attempt, although my first attempt had the car half on the sidewalk, which amused snickering locals no end (I can't remember the last time I had to parallel park in Reno). Then we hiked up to Holy Hill, dodging commencement activities, to grab some lunch and see if we could find my friend A.

Most of the lunch places were closed when we got there, either because it was Sunday or because it was still before noon. But A. was on his usual milk crate on his usual corner, and when Gary and I walked up he grinned at me and said, "I wondered if you'd be here this summer!" and pulled something out of his pocket. It was the rock I used to weight down the note I left him two years ago: he's still carrying it around with him. Gary shook A.'s hand and said, "I've heard a lot about you, sir," and A. and I chatted a bit about science fiction, and I gave him a signed copy of The Fate of Mice (because I know he loves short stories) and some money, and he gave me a small blue glass heart.

He had five of these glass hearts. He said he was going to keep one as a good luck charm and give four to friends. He had some SF magazines he would have given me, but they were somewhere else. We asked if we could buy him lunch, and he thanked us but declined, because he had some food saved up for today.

He seemed cheerful. His vision's much better after cataract surgery. He kept talking about "domestic terrorists" who were scaring him, and also told us some stories about taming one or more wild rats whom he feeds. Gary and I weren't sure how to interpret this: I've gotten indications of mental illness during previous conversations (and I'd expect it in someone so chronically homeless), but Gary and I both thought that "domestic terrorists" might just be A.'s ironic term for gangs who beat up homeless people. The rat stories were more improbable -- and alarming if they're true, since rats still help transmit diseases like Bubonic plague (which clears right up with a shot of penicillin) -- but I know A. gets medical care from the county hospital, and he told us that he'd told the doctors there about one of the rats who'd bitten him. I just have to trust that he's getting the treatments and services he needs . . . or those he'll accept, anyway.

I never did get around to sending him all those books I have for him, and I'd been feeling really guilty about that. Today I wrote down his full address -- he gets his mail at a nearby photocopy place -- and Gary said, "I'll make her send you the books, I promise!" I have an extra copy of the Tiptree biography for him, and he wants to read it because he doesn't know much about her life. He asked if I'd write him a postcard now and then. He was disappointed that I won't be taking a course in Berkeley this summer, but I'll just have to try to be a better friend and write to him.

Ideally, I'd like to send him a care package once a month: some books, a bit of money, some nonperishable food. But I don't want to make promises to him or to myself that I won't keep . . . so let's see if I manage to send the first box, before I commit to any others.

Gary enjoyed meeting him, and said later, "I really admire anyone who can survive on the streets for that long. We couldn't do it." No, indeed.

Gary also asked why I hadn't invited him to the reading, especially after what happened yesterday. I thought about inviting him but then didn't, and I'm not sure why. I think I had some dim, ill-formed sense that it might be awkward for him, especially since I thought people might be buying books he wouldn't be able to afford (I needn't have worried!). But there's some complicated piece of self-protection in there, too, something about how geographically localized the friendship has been, something about how I'm wary of stepping outside those boundaries. I'm not proud of this, and I clearly haven't even figured it out completely, but I decided to honor my limits and not push it.

If we'd been there longer, I might have been able to tease out what I was feeling, but it was a very quick visit: we zipped up the hill to see A. and then zipped back down again for lunch and the reading. After the reading, we got in the car and sped home, where the cats greeted us with great joy.

In any event, I'm glad we saw A., and I think he was glad to see us. I hope so, anyhow.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Three Wishes

We took the N-Judah train to Ocean Beach today, as we usually do. When the train's traveling aboveground, I always love looking at the buildings and imagining living in them. San Francisco has real architecture almost everywhere, whereas it's a rarity in Reno.

Today, I found myself idly wishing that I'd see a cat in a window. And then I did: a black cat who reminded me of Balthazar (I couldn't find a picture of a black cat in a window, so I used this one instead).

That was pleasant and a little startling, but not terribly odd: after all, lots of people have cats, and cats like windows.

A little while later, I was walking along the beach with Gary, collecting rocks. I love rocks, and always have: when I was a kid, my family always said that when we went to the beach, only my back got tan, because I was always looking down at my feet, scanning for rocks. This is the only thing I don't like about Maui, or at least about the beaches we've gone to there: they're too smooth. No rocks!

Good beaches, in my book, are rocky beaches. Ocean Beach has wonderful rocks, along with lots of sand dollars. The last time I was there, this past July, I found a rock with intriguing quartz veins that looked sort of like a cross, and today, I idly wished to find another rock with a cross on it.

And then I did.

You won't find a much clearer cross than that! It's much more distinct than the cross on the rock I found last year. Mind you, there are lots of cross-like (cross-ish?) rocks on Ocean Beach; I found two others right after this one, although this was the first and clearest. So again, as with the cat in the window, I wasn't too surprised, although I was very pleased.

A few hours later, we showed up for my Borderlands reading. About ten chairs were set up, which showed me that they expected a small crowd: that was my estimate, too. We got there about an hour early, so of course no one was there to hear me yet. I bought some books, and we had a very pleasant conversation with the owner, Alan, who's a fascinating guy, and then Jacob and Rina from Tachyon showed up and I introduced them to Gary, and we all stood around schmoozing for a while.

Alan had told me that the 5:00 reading would probably really start at 5:10, on "San Francisco time." At 5:05, no one had come. I said to Jacob and Rina, "So if nobody shows up, can we just go out to dinner?" But I love reading, and I really wanted to read. Jacob told me that if nobody showed up, I could say all kinds of things about the reading on my blog. An audience of thousands! Celebrity listeners! Wild party tricks! I'm kinda too honest for that, though.

At 5:15, we were still schmoozing, and no one was there, and I found myself wishing, "Please, let just one person come. Just one. Then I can read a story."

At 5:20, a voice from the front of the store said, "Is the reading over already?" It was a homeless man Alan knows pretty well, someone who brings in used books hoping that the store will buy them.

"It hasn't started!" I told him. "You're my audience! Thank you for coming!" Alan didn't want to buy the books the man had with him today, so he asked if anyone could give him a dollar to buy two chicken wings for dinner. I happily gave him a dollar, and he settled into his chair, and Alan and Jacob and Rina and Gary settled into theirs, and I read to my tiny but attentive audience.

I read "Beautiful Stuff," because Alan likes zombie stories. The homeless man seemed to be enthralled: he was leaning forward with his eyes fixed on me, and once or twice I heard him murmur something in response to the story.

When I'd finished reading, he came up and we chatted. He said, "This is my first reading. I loved it. Thank you." He kissed my hand and said, "You're a lovely lady." He told me about having a photographic memory and how annoying that can be, and he told me he'd been in Vietnam. (Those of you who've read "Beautiful Stuff" know that it's a very unsubtle anti-war story, so I'm grateful that he responded so well to it.)

Gary told me later, "I was proud of you for doing a reading just for that one guy," but I was grateful to the one guy for giving me an excuse to read. And I enjoyed talking to him: it felt like talking to homeless patients at the hospital, which is so often my favorite part of any given shift.

And after three answered wishes, I no longer believed that any of it had been coincidence. The universe was very generous to me today. Thank you, universe.

Oh Bliss, Thy Name is San Francisco

We had a very easy drive in yesterday -- three hours and twenty minutes -- and are happily ensconced in our "suite," which is really just a very large room with a couch in addition to the regular hotel-room furniture. Unfortunately, there's no bureau, but life's always a series of trade-offs, right?

But very large is good. We'll take it. We've stayed at this hotel before, in the "if you stretch you can touch both walls at once" room, and this one's a definite improvement.

Our room also has a small fridge, which is all kinds of handy. Yesterday we went to the closest grocery store, a chi-chi yuppie whole-foods deli, and got real coffee and filters (since hotel-room coffee's a joke), half and half for Gary, yogurt for him, soy yogurt for me, and some raspberry scones. We're having a lovely breakfast for much less than we'd pay at any of the local eateries. I'm a big fan of not having to shower and dress before I eat breakfast, especially since I can't perform any coordinated movements -- like turning on the shower or putting on socks -- before I've had my two mugs of coffee.

And as you can tell, the advertised free wireless works. Yay!

Yesterday we did some shopping (I got a cute top on sale, and passed on a gorgeous but impractical skirt on sale) and had dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant, Basil. Today: a walk on Ocean Beach, and then my reading at Borderlands Books, and then dinner with the Tachyon folks.

Beach! Beach! I forgot to take my antidepressant last night, but a walk on the beach does easily as much as an entire month of the stuff.

And if we see cute dogs, my bliss will be complete. Also, if people actually come to my reading.

Friday, May 18, 2007

More Blogging Bits

We'll be leaving for San Francisco in a few hours; the hotel where we're staying is supposed to have high-speed internet, but I don't know how much time I'll have to blog. We're also bringing the camera, so if we get any good pictures at the readings or elsewhere, I'll post them.

I'm now only eight ED sonnets away from a full set. I've already told the hospital I'm doing this, and have found out who'll have to read the poems when they're done to make sure they're HIPAA-safe. I got some very nice encouragement the other day from my colleague Ann Keniston, who's a Real Poet (TM) and a lovely person. I'd asked her a few months ago if she'd read these when I had the whole set, to see if they were any good; she'd said that she would. But on Wednesday I saw her at work, and she said she'd stumbled across the blog and had read some of the sonnets and really liked them.

That was a huge relief; a Real Poet thought they were real poems, and I hadn't even had to go through the nerve-wracking process of handing her a manuscript and waiting for a response. Thanks, Ann!

So I'm now thinking more seriously about the possibility of publishing the whole set as a chapbook, although finding a publisher is a decidedly non-trivial issue. For several reasons, mostly involving getting credit for this project at work, I don't want to self-publish any more than I already have. Because nearly all publishers want books containing material that hasn't appeared anywhere else, including the internet, I'm not going to post the remaining eight sonnets here. If indeed I manage to publish the small volume -- and if that happens, it will take months if not years -- I'll let everyone know. Please wish me luck!

On a related note, there's some distress in the medblogging world right now; several highly regarded, pseudonymous medbloggers have shut down their blogs because people they knew in real life figured out who they were. In one case, the blogger's co-worker printed out the entire blog and showed it to the blogger's supervisor. The supervisor didn't have a problem with it; the blogger shut the blog down anyway, apparently unnerved by having been outed.

Okay, everybody, repeat after me: The internet is public space. Because it's such a crowded public space, we often act as if what we post is at least semi-private, but it's not. The best strategy is not to post anything you wouldn't be comfortable having everyone read, even if you're using a pseudonym. We write blogs because we want people to be able to read our thoughts, right? If you want to limit your readership only to selected people, set up one of those private blogs that only certain individuals can read. Otherwise, it's a big world out there, and the door's open.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Belated Bits o' Blog Business

I'm blogging very late today; I got caught up in other things this morning and afternoon. Here are a bunch of items of varying overdue-ness:

1. This week's Change of Shift is up. Alas, I missed the deadline, but I'm looking forward to reading the edition!

2. Weeks and weeks ago (months, even) I had the great honor of being tagged for the Thinking Blogger Meme by both N=1 and Disappearing John. This really means a lot to me, since I think the world of both these folks. But between my mother's surgery and the end of the semester, it's taken forever for me to tag five people in turn.

Here are the guidelines for the meme:
Should you choose to participate, please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging.

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to five blogs that make you think,

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award.' (Shown above.)
Here's my list. It was hard to choose five, so please don't be insulted if you aren't included here!

In no particular order:

Elliot at Claw of the Conciliator, who writes thoughtful posts about faith and SF/F, among other things.

Martin at Sun and Shield, who writes thoughtful posts about the intersection between science, faith, and speculative literature.

Tiel at Knocking from Inside, whose poetry always makes me ponder both language and the world it describes.

Rachel at The Velveteen Rabbi, who's also a poet and chaplain, and who's deepened my understanding of Judaism.

Nickie at Nickie's Nook, who helps me understand both blindness and chronic pain, and who makes her readers think long and hard about disability issues, especially in social work. (And Julio gets the World's Greatest Dog award!)

3. Months ago, I registered this blog at The Truth Laid Bear, mainly because I was looking forward to being in TTLB's whimsical ecosystem. But I could never get Rickety Contrivances to show up in the ecosystem, even though the site told me my blog was already registered when I tried to register it again. Very frustrating!

But yesterday, I discovered that, lo and behold, the blog had appeared in the ecosystem after all. I was a lowly insect! That may not sound very impressive, but it has to be better than being an insignificant microbe.

And as of this morning, I'd graduated to slimy mollusc! Gosh! Look, ma: I'm evolving!

At this rate, I'll have a backbone in no time.

The only problem is that now I can't find the ecosystem widget on the TTLB site, so I have to go there to learn my evolutionary status, rather than having it show up automatically on my sidebar.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


The hospital where I volunteer isn't a trauma center, but sometimes we get trauma cases anyway if patients have been transported by car rather than ambulance. (This is one of many reasons to call an ambulance if someone's seriously injured: the paramedics will know the best place to take the patient.) During my volunteer shift this week, we had one of those cases. The patient and a family member wound up on a medevac flight to a hospital in another state, but they were in our ED for two or three hours.

I was in the room for at least an hour, first to comfort the family member -- mainly by offering tissues -- and then just to watch, since I'd never seen a case like this before and it was interesting. I know that sounds ghoulish, but everybody in the ED I've talked to about this feels the same way. There's a universal oh, COOL! reaction when a challenging or unusual case comes in, even though everyone also feels terrible for the patient and family.

What impressed me most was the teamwork among the medical staff, most of whom weren't used to this level of care and were clearly anxious about it. There was a lot of checking and doublechecking protocols: how do we handle this? A nurse who wasn't assigned to that room, but who'd worked trauma recently at another hospital, got called in to help evaluate the patient.

The nurses were worried about the patient's airway, which was fine but which they feared might become compromised by developing symptoms. At one point, I was at the bedside standing next to the relative; a nurse was on the other side of the bed monitoring the heavily sedated patient, who began to breathe with a soft rattling sound.

The nurse paled. "That sounds like stridor." She asked me to go get the trauma nurse, and asked her, "Does that sound like stridor to you? Do you think we need to intubate?"

While this was happening, the nurse explained clearly and compassionately to the relative what was going on. "We're just being over-cautious right now. We want to make sure we head off any problems."

The patient wound up surrounded by three nurses with stethoscopes, who listened to the breathing. "We need to go get the doctor. We need to intubate."

This doctor's one of my favorites, an easy-going and unflappable person who wears his status lightly. He came in, listened to the patient, listened to the nurses, looked at the monitor, and said, "We don't need to intubate. Come on, guys; we're looking at 100% oxygen saturation on room air. Why would we need to intubate?"

"But I heard stridor!" the first nurse said. (I'd heard it too, and I'm not even trained.)

"That's probably from oversedation," the doctor said, and the nurse -- who'd been pushing small amounts of Fentanyl whenever the patient started to come to -- looked stricken. "No, no," the doctor said, "the sedation's the right thing to do, to keep the pain levels down, but look, we don't need to intubate right now. The medevac crew can intubate during the flight if they need to: they're really good at that. Right now, the risks of intubation outweigh the benefits. But you were right to be concerned: this is really hard stuff."

The doctor thanked the nurses for calling him in; the nurses, in turn, thanked him for listening to them and explaining his rationale clearly. I got the feeling that they don't always feel listened to by doctors.

And everyone kept thanking me for being there, although most of the time, all I was doing was watching. I think my presence meant more to the medical staff than to the relative. The main nurse told me, "Because you're here, I can concentrate completely on the patient, since I know someone else is taking care of the family member." She took care of the family member more than I did, with those clear and reassuring explanations, but if having me there made her feel better, I was glad to keep standing and watching.

The doctor responded to my presence, too. "It's good you're here tonight. This is when we really need you." He grinned and said, "Most of the time you're just talking to schizophrenics in the hallway."

"They need me too! Those patients know how people look at them. They feel horrible about it." (Frankly, I think I've done far more for some of our mentally ill patients than I did for the trauma patient's family member.)

"Okay, okay, schizophrenia's a tough disease, you're right; what I should have said was, most of the time you're just talking to the alcoholics in the hallway." Another grin. "The alcoholics who are here every day. But what's happening now, this is important."

"Everybody's important." And alcoholism isn't a tough disease? I'd talked to this doctor before about how much alcoholism there is in my family, but he must have forgotten.

The nurses needed him then, so we broke off the conversation, but we continued it later. "Look," I told him, "there's nobody in this department who didn't feel for that trauma patient. Everybody was on that patient's side. The alcoholics and mental patients need somebody who's on their side, too; that's my job. They need me even more than this family did, because fewer people are rooting for them."

"Okay, you're right," the doctor said, and then explained his own frustrations with those populations: feeling as if the ED becomes their safety net because no one else is providing services for them. "I'm mad at the system, not really at them."

I think it was a good conversation for both of us. He got to vent about the difficulties of his job, and I got to explain my own priorities. Chaplains practice a kind of triage, too, and sometimes the patients at the top of our list are the ones the medical staff considers least in need of care. (All together, now: "Whatever you have done for the least of these who are members of my family, you have done for me.")

And I learned a lot from watching the trauma case, which really was fascinating from a purely medical standpoint. I've always thought working in a trauma center would be too hard, but now I think maybe I could do it after all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The ED Sonnets: Rooms 12 and 13

Room 12

He’s kindly, white-haired, greets me with a smile,
seems healthy. “Yes, I’m waiting to go home.
I had some trouble breathing for a while,
but now I’m fine. I like your job. That’s some-
thing I did, too, for years. I’m old, you know:
a hundred years last month.” “I wouldn’t guess
a day past seventy!” He laughs. “Just so!
My calling kept me young, the work of bless-
ing people, loving them and God. But you
do that. You know.” “I’m just a volunteer.”
“That doesn’t matter! So was Jesus. Do
you love the work?” I nod. “And did I hear
a code?” I nod. “He died. But anyway —”
“My dear.” He reaches for my hand. “Let’s pray.”


Room 13

We have no thirteenth room; some patients might
fear even more misfortune. Being here’s
bad luck aplenty, other numbers fright-
ening enough: pulse in the stratosphere,
high pressure, fever, labs mysterious
to all but the anointed, hieroglyphs
revealing failing organs, boisterous
infections, tumors. There are always ifs
in medicine, along with ands and buts;
it’s art as much as science. But the scopes
and scans seem final, certain. Surgeons’ cuts
are unequivocal, whatever hopes
their findings raise. With fear so overfed,
we don’t make room for superstitious dread.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The ED Sonnets: Room 11

Here are the next two sonnets. But first, a contest!

Do you have a chronic illness? Do you have a friend with a chronic illness? Jenni of ChronicBabe has five extra copies of Lisa Copen's book Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend, and she'll send them to the people who e-mail her the best stories about how someone helped them with a chronic illness, or how they helped someone else with a chronic illness. Read more here. The deadline's May 18, coming up fast!

Also, this week's Grand Rounds is up, a day early, and I'm pleased that my last batch of sonnets is included.

And now, on to the new poems.


Bed 11.1

“We’re visiting from Iowa,” she says.
“We’re flying back tomorrow, if we can.
We had a lovely time, until we stuffed
ourselves at the buffet: oh, what a sight!
Roast beef, asparagus with hollandaise,
shrimp cocktail, pasta . . . “ All in warming pans,
I think, and incubating germs as tough
as rubber chicken.
“We were up all night,”
she says. “It all gushed out from either end.
And now we’re terrified we’ll miss our flight
back home. I could reschedule, but my friend’s
less flexible.” “I’m sure you’ll be all right,”
I say. “They’ll give you fluids, and you’ll mend
in no time.” Welcome to Casino Blight.


Bed 11.2

And here’s her friend, still green, the Tweedledee
to Bed One’s Tweedledum. “I have to be
in Iowa! My nephew’s getting back
this Wednesday. He was injured in Iraq;
he lost a leg, and heaven only knows
about his head. I’m scared. My sister goes
to a support group -- soldiers’ relatives --
but I can’t stand it. What he’s suffered gives
me nightmares. I’m on medication now:
anxiety. We thought this Reno trip
might be a fun distraction, a release.
It hasn’t helped. I can’t imagine how
I’ll help him. Can we pray?” Her tale’s the tip
of icebergs: terrors, tears. We pray for peace.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Home Away From Home

This wound up being a really difficult sermon to write; I didn't give myself enough time, for one thing (understandable at the end of the semester, I think), so yesterday I wound up writing three different versions of the second half. All of them would have been okay-ish, but the first two really didn't gel, as Gary gently pointed out. He couldn't even fully articulate what wasn't working about them, which is a really bad sign and meant they were really a mess -- so at 10:30 last night, I came up with this one, which is the most coherent of the bunch.

My congregation, bless them, responded very well, although that undoubtedly says at least as much about them as about me. (I think they'd still give me hugs and compliments if I got up and read my laundry list.) Anyway, I more or less obeyed the "no cats" injunction: there's only one brief mention of cats before I go on to talk about birds. But after church, I swapped cat stories with a fellow parishioner who has two of her own, and who firmly believes that they take care of her, rather than the other way around.

Here are the readings. I used the first Gospel selection, not the second.

Note: Regular blog readers will recognize my central illustration from this post.


This morning’s lessons are about departures and arrivals, about leave-takings and homecomings. In Acts, the apostles journey to Macedonia and are welcomed by the newly baptized Lydia: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” By leaving to join his Father, Jesus is going to his ultimate home. The theme of homecoming is just as strong in the passage from Revelation, that beautiful description of the New Jerusalem, the happy home where “there will be no more night.”

These readings are fitting for Mother’s Day. Our biological mothers are our first homes, since we grow within their bodies. But Mother’s Day can be painful for people who have lost, or are estranged from, their mothers or their children, and whose homes feel too empty as a result. It can be a bittersweet day for people, like me, with frail and aging mothers whose final departure from this earthly home we dread. And it can be an annoying day for those of us -- again like me -- who don’t have biological children. Luckily, the greeting-card companies have begun to acknowledge different kinds of mothering. There are now Mother’s Day cards for stepmothers, godmothers, and all kinds of honorary mothers, including men. There are even cards from pets to their human caretakers, although my ungrateful cats have yet to send me any.

Since we’re in church, it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t have much use for traditional family values. He repeatedly warned his disciples against making idols of other people, against loving relatives more than God. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he told them. This is still not a sentiment we’re likely to find on a Hallmark card.

Jesus, who has a way of turning everything upside down, forces us to rethink how we define home. What makes a place a home, especially if we are far away from where we usually reside? Jesus promises to make his home with those who follow his word; Lydia invites the apostles to her home if they consider her faithful to God. When we seek a home away from home, then, we look for people who love the same things we do, who share the same sense of what’s important. Many of us describe St. Stephen’s as “our church home” because it is the place where we all love God and try to love each other, even if we aren’t biologically related.

Thinking about Lydia’s hospitality in welcoming the apostles into her home, I realized that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. This fascinated me; as many of you know, I volunteer as a hospital chaplain, and most of us consider hospitals anything but homey. “Home” and “hospital” seem like complete opposites. But then I thought about my chaplaincy training. We learned that the first rule of pastoral care is to meet patients where they are, instead of telling them where they should be. The chaplain’s job is to learn what’s important to the patient, what the patient loves. What we love is the source of our strength. What we love heals us. What we love makes us feel at home. People who affirm the value of what we love can make us feel more at home even in the foreign, frightening country of the hospital.

Trying to make patients feel at home, I’ve listened to them talk about their families and about their love for God. But I’ve also listened to stories about things that I, myself, have never cared about very much: cooking, geneology, rodeo, vintage cars, model trains, British history, soap operas, astrology, and Little League baseball. Even if I’m not that interested in the subject, though, I love hearing the passion in the patients’ voices, love seeing their faces light up, like the faces of travelers who have returned home from a journey. That light always renews my awe at the dazzling variety of God’s creation, where there are so many things to love.

Last autumn, I visited a patient who was dying. Her husband was with her. They spoke movingly of her long illness, and asked me to pray with them. When I invited them to name their prayer concerns, they asked for strength and comfort, for freedom from pain, for guidance for their grown children. But at the end of the list, the patient hesitated. I could tell there was something else she wanted to add. “Go on,” I told her. “What is it?”

She blushed. “Well, this may sound silly, but . . . do you think pets are important?”

As most of you know, I think pets are very important; but even if I didn’t, her feelings would have mattered more than mine. “Of course they are,” I told her, and her face lit up.

Some six months before, her husband had found a baby finch lying under a tree. It must have fallen out of its nest. He took it home, and the couple raised it, feeding it with an eye-dropper. They told me eagerly how cute it was, how it loved to sit on their shoulders and take baths in teacups. Remembering its antics, they laughed. They adored the little creature.

And then one day it flew out of an open window. They hoped it would come back when it got hungry, but it didn’t. They worried about whether it would be able to find food, whether it would be accepted by wild finches. They asked me if I would pray for its protection and safety.

Of course I said I would. After we’d prayed for all of their concerns, I told them, “You know, a lot of people have finch feeders. My husband and I have one. We feed lots of birds.”

The couple was immensely relieved to know that their pet would have easy access to food. They described their finch to me, so I could recognize it if it came to our feeder. Before I left the room, the wife squeezed my hand and said, “I feel so much better now. Thank you.” She looked better, too. She looked more peaceful, less troubled and afraid: more at home.

Since then, I’ve paid more careful attention to the finches at our feeder. Many of them look like the bird that dying patient and her husband described. There’s no way to know if I’ve helped feed -- helped mother -- their beloved pet, but I like to think that I have. The story of the finch is a parable about losing one home, the nest, and finding a series of others: a home with a foster family, and then, we hope, a home in the wider world, where the hospitality of strangers makes survival possible, and where those strangers, in turn, become friends and family.

It may seem odd that a dying woman was more worried about a finch than about the people she loved. But she believed that her human family had come to terms, as best they could, with her departure. Like the Good Shepherd seeking the lost lamb, she fretted about the creature whose safety was least certain. And if the dying woman reminds me of the Good Shepherd, the finch reminds me of the Holy Spirit: the wild thing that loves us but will not be contained, that escapes into the wider world and travels to places we cannot see or imagine, alighting briefly wherever anyone has put out food for it, stirring us to wonder with its quicksilver flight.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, is the Advocate, who comes to teach us and to remind us what Jesus taught us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. . . . If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” If we love the finch, should we rejoice that it has gained its freedom? If we love the woman, should we rejoice that she has gone to God? Surely, like Jesus’ friends, we also grieve for those we love but see no longer, however strong our faith that they have found that final home, the New Jerusalem, where we will one day join them.

Until then, we live in this home away from home. We do our best to follow Jesus, to offer hospitality to an infinite variety of others: to feed the hungry and comfort the fearful, to welcome the stranger, to make the whole dazzling creation home for all who live here.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

The ED Sonnets: Code, CCU Waiting Room, Chapel II

Here's the latest set. Thirty-three down, twelve to go. Those are nice scriptural numbers, eh?

To get the full effect of these, you'll need to read (or reread) some of the earlier ones: Emergency Family Trauma Consult Room and Room 2, which you'll find here, and Chapel I.

This set came out oddly: for one thing, I make a point of never using the phrase "God's will" with patients or family unless they've done so first (and then I tell them it's okay to be angry). But the kind of thing I would say -- praying for people to find the strength to get through what they don't understand -- fits much less well into a sonnet, so that language became shorthand.

I'd be grateful for comments about whether these work, and how to make them work if they don't. I'm afraid they may be too hokey. Thanks!



It comes through on the overhead: “Code Blue,
Room 557.” Every chaplain in
the building goes to codes, but I’m alone
tonight, the cavalry. That’s CCU.
I take the elevator with the team
from the ED. Nobody runs, except
on TV shows. I know what to expect:
the swarm of staff, equipment, feet, the same
crazed scene I saw downstairs. I wait outside,
remembering. He went to CCU.
Please, please be someone else.
As if on cue,
a nurse says, “In the lounge -- his wife’s beside
herself -- could you -- ” “Of course.” In here I’m just
a nuisance. Please be someone else. She must.


CCU Waiting Room

She’s not. She’s pacing. “You again! You get
around this place!” She tries to laugh. She can’t.
I swallow. “I’m so sorry. Do you want
me here?” “Of course. Have they --” “No news as yet.”
I speak too quickly. No news isn’t good.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know how to pray
right now. Downstairs, I knew just what to say:
let him survive. It worked; God understood.
But now I’m here again. I can’t go through
this anymore!” “We pray God’s will be done,”
I tell her sadly, “maybe most when we
don’t know our own.” “It’s always done.” “That’s true;
we pray for acc -- ” “Oh, God, the doctor’s come!”
He clears his throat; his voice cracks anyway.


Chapel II

She didn’t want me there. Downstairs, she clung,
but now she’s furious at God, and I’m
God’s representative, who couldn’t climb
up far enough to reach him, whose thick tongue
could form no pleading powerful enough
to ward off death. Let us accept your will,
acknowledging that every Lazarus
must die again at last. It’s obvious:
all miracles are temporary till
the final Easter. Help us persevere
through our most dreadful Fridays. Let us trust
in resurrection. Comfort us in pain.

I kneel -- most hollow reed -- and pray, and hear
an echo: Ash to ashes, dust to dust.
Not news. Get up: best get to work again.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Carnival of Hope: Volume 1, Number 9

Welcome to the May Carnival of Hope! I've just handed in my spring-semester grades, so I'm one happy professor, looking forward eagerly to summer, even though I have huge mounds of work to do. We don't really get summers off, you know!

And speaking of summer, the next CoH will appear here on Friday, June 8. The deadline for submissions is Thursday, June 7 at 5:00 PM PDT. You can either use the BlogCarnival submission form or e-mail me directly -- SusanPal at aol dot com -- sending me the permalink and a brief description of your post.

By the way, if anybody out there is interested in hosting CoH, please e-mail me! Blog carnivals seem to do better when more people get involved, and I've been hogging this one for a while now.

On to the carnival!

Editor's Pick: My favorite post this month is The Jesus Three, Nurse Ratched's wonderful piece about working as a psychiatric nurse on a ward where no fewer than three patients believed they were Jesus -- and worked together to prove it. She comments, "Maybe angels really do walk among us on psychiatric units," and after you read this story, I think you'll agree.

Religious faith is a recurring theme in this month's posts. Ishtar shares terrible news, along with the trust in God that is carrying her through it, in the heart-wrenching Heartbroken. Ishtar, you and your family will be in my prayers.

Paradoxically, loss often reminds us to be grateful, as Anthony illustrates in his post A Thanksgiving Thought. This story also reminds us to reach out to those we love in tangible ways.

Don West shares how he did just that in his post Carla. Anyone who's ever loved an animal will be touched by this idea! I also really like the "illustrated journal" format of Don's blog.

Many people were saddened by the recent death of Kurt Vonnegut. Jeremy Adam Smith shares his own feelings about Vonnegut, and describes how Vonnegut's work has shaped his approach to life, in So it goes. "God damn it, you've got to be kind." Yes, indeed.

Some tragedies sorely test our abilities to be kind, which makes kindness offered in response even more moving. After the Virginia Tech massacre, I saw an interview with a survivor who expressed forgiveness for the shooter; that interview prompted this post, which ends with another sobering story about people who have chosen love over vengeance. Since I wrote this post, I've been heartened to read that other survivors have expressed great sympathy for Cho's family, and even for Cho himself.

Along the same lines, MysticSaint shares some thought-provoking quotations about love and forgiveness in Manifestation of Love | from the Bowl of Saki. Please note that this is one of those blogs that automatically starts playing music; I'm always badly startled when my computer makes unexpected noises, so if you are too, now you've been warned!

What happened at Virginia Tech was so horrible in part because so many people died. At a certain point, though, large numbers only induce compassion fatigue, as Naazneen Barma discusses in his fascinating post Compassion is Not in the Numbers. I was particularly interested in this piece because I know Paul Slovic's son, who's a professor in my department. Small world!

If stories about individuals are most likely to move us to compassion, though, there's still no doubt that collective action can achieve wonders -- and that being with many other people who are working for positive change can do a lot to lift the spirits. Riversider, whose blog is devoted to saving the River Ribble in the north of England, tells us about a most heartening Mayday gathering, and includes photos.

And finally, on a somewhat lighter note, Brandon Peele shares his amusing memories of A Week with Sai Maa. Although the week indeed wound up being very transformative for him, he struggled with his self-confessed dislike of the "knuckleheads" who cluster around leaders. This story just goes to show that you don't have to like all of the other students to benefit from an inspired teacher.

That's it for this month, but have a very merry May, and please come back in June!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Carnival of Hope Reminder

Please remember that the CoH deadline is 5:00 PM PDT today. You still have time to send me submissions!

And speaking of hope, here's a moving story:

One of my students, a woman my age, has a Japanese mother who was in the WWII U.S. internment camps. That's a really shameful chapter of United States history, one that -- as my student points out -- we'd do well to think about when we consider what's happening at Guantanamo now. Six of my student's aunts and uncles were in the camps, too.

My student said that her relatives' lack of bitterness about their experience is remarkable. Although they suffered greatly in the camps, they're the most patriotic people she knows, and many have served in the U.S. military.

In 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized to the former internees, and sent each a reparation check of $20,000. Although her family is by no means wealthy, my student's mother, and her aunts and uncles, all sat down with a lawyer and wrote a letter explaining that they were returning the money. One of my student's aunts had given birth to twins while she was in the camp, and one of the twins had cerebral palsy. The family specified that the $140,000 they were returning to the government should be used to help children with CP.

My student said, "If it had been me, I would have kept the money." I think I probably would have, too. But in class that day, we'd been talking about how many people work through pain and grief by somehow turning their loss into a benefit for other sufferers -- think organ donation, memorial scholarship funds, victims' support groups -- and this is a wonderful example of how seven people did just that.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bookish Bliss

The other day, I went to the library and took out a large stack of books I need or want to read over the summer, either for writing-related research or class prep. Earlier this week, I devoured Ellen Klages' gorgeous The Green Glass Sea -- which I've heartily recommended to my writing students -- and I'm now happily ensconced in Julie Phillips' much-feted biography of James Tiptree, Jr., which I requested and received as a birthday gift last September and have only now started reading. It's been months since I've read for pleasure, and I'm having a wonderful time falling into books again.

I'm feeling unusually energetic and motivated at the moment, without any of the exhaustion and brain-fuzz that often plague me at the end of the semester. I suspect this is the product of months of sustained exercise (six days a week at the gym since late January, except when we were in Maui) combined with my two antidepressants. Last summer's a gray blur, except for the art course in Berkeley and the fun of starting the blog, and I'm really hoping that this summer will be more productive.

I've made up a daily schedule for myself, to start after we return from WisCon, which will include three hours of writing or writing-related research, my habitual two hours at the gym (only about fifty minutes of that is actual exercise), and three hours of course prep: this last includes retooling my fall freshman comp course, catching up on Tolkien criticism for my spring JRRT course, and trying to bring myself up to speed in narrative medicine for my work at the med school. We'll see if I manage to stick to that schedule, but I hope I will!

In the meantime, here's that Locus review of Shelter I promised you. The reviewer is Gary K. Wolfe.
After producing a total of two books in the first 13 years of her career, Susan Palwick seems to have suddenly shifted into overdrive with two more books within six months of each other -- The Fate of Mice (a collection reviewed here in March) and now Shelter, a huge novel that has the earmarks of a magnum opus, or at least a magnum. But dates can be deceiving. The Fate of Mice included some 20 years' worth of stories, and the buzz about Shelter goes back at least a decade (she says she's been working on it for 15 years, which dates its inception all the way back to 1992, the year Palwick's stunning debut novel Flying in Place appeared). Both her two earlier novels and her stories suggested that Palwick is a writer of considerable narrative economy, but Shelter is far more ambitious in its purview, covering more than two decades in the lives of two women in a mid-21st-century San Francisco which, having survived virulent plagues, terrorists, and environmental disasters, has evolved into a kind of social-welfare dystopia. "Excessive altruism" has been classified a mental disorder, "brainwiping" has become a widely accepted behavior for everything from criminal behavior to recalcitrant teens, and the local kindergarten is run by an insufferably patient AI who is modeled on Mister Rogers, but who -- before growing into a sympathetic character in his own right -- too often sounds like HAL the computer. For the most part, though, Palwick doesn't spend a great deal of time foregrounding her SF elements; the only real sense of the effect global warning has had on this world, for example, is a massive, hurricanelike storm that opens the novel, and the main evidence of terrorism is a particularly harrowing episode in which a character is dismembered by an army of reprogrammed service robots. There are debates about the morality of brainwipes and the legal status of AIs, there's a megacorporation selling the possibility of postmortem immortality on the web, there's an emergent Gaia religious movement, and there's a lot of other stuff, but at the center of the book are a deeply disturbed child and those two women, one of whom is his teacher and the other his adoptive mother.

The novel opens on an almost startling note of loss and mourning, as eight-year-old Roberta Danton, confined to an isolation ward during an outbreak of the virus known as CV, learns of her parents' death from the same disease and is befriended by the electronic presence of Preston Walford, a wealthy industrialist who is the first person to have himself posthumously uploaded to the web. Walford's own daughter Meredith, suffering from the same disease in the same hospital, won't talk to him after his "translation." When Roberta is cast into the foster-care system, Walford keeps in touch with her, but never offers her the kind of privilege that Meredith, another rare survivor of the disease, enjoys as a wealthy heiress. Decades later, Roberta is a social worker on probation for an unnamed crime, and a mutilated and exhausted Meredith shows up at her flooded apartment building, seeking shelter and hoping to be rescued by her husband Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin himself has been killed during the storm, and a brainwiped homeless man named Henry has moved into his house at the invitation of the house's governing AI. Much of the rest of this quite formally structured novel is devoted to explaining who these people are, what happened to Meredith, what was Roberta's crime, and why everyone is coming together at this point in the tale.

The next two long sections of the novel, taking up nearly three-quarters of its length, tell that tale from Meredith's viewpoint and then from Roberta's, before returning to the present for a resolution which, while dramatically satisfying, isn't entirely convincing. But the story itself gains immense power, once it gets past a faltering start that devotes entirely too much time to Meredith's adolescence and residency in a Gaia temple. As the daughter of the founder of the conglomerate MacroCorp, Meredith is something of a celebrity kid, and she blames herself when a former lover -- now involved with a flake named Zephyr -- is kidnapped and meets a horrible death at the hands of anti-AI terrorists. Eventually she's drawn out of her funk by a teacher named Kevin, whom she marries. At her insistence, they adopt another CV-survivor child, Nicholas, and enroll him in that Mister-Rogers-haunted kindergarten where Roberta is now a teacher. But Nicholas is plagued by nightmares of monsters, which he tries to appease by sacificing (and mutilating) mice (Palwick is tough on mice). His only friends are Roberta, Fred the AI (after Fred Rogers), and a cat-friendly homeless man named Henry whom Meredith had encountered earlier while working at an animal shelter. Fearful that Nicholas' weird behavior will lead to his being brainwiped, Meredith inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that cause catastrophic harm to both Henry and Roberta and eventually to her husband Kevin.

So despite the richly textured but understated SF setting, despite the catalogs of grief and loneliness that would just give Thomas Hardy a glow, despite the reform-minded concern with social justice that would give other Victorian novelists a glow, the novel finally stands or falls entirely on character -- and here Palwick is firmly in her metier. While it's a bit risky to have so much of the narrative rest on the point of view of the relatively unsympathetic character Meredith, both she and the more courageous Roberta emerge as complex, conflicted figures caught in a system in which even the right actions can lead to disaster. The child Nicholas, whose troubles are never fully explained, is both heartbreaking and hopeless, and the main secondary characters are drawn with a depth of insight that's often brilliant: Preston, never quite certain of his own humanity as he navigates afterlife on the web; Henry, the victim of his own compassion; even the superannuated flower child Zephyr, insulated from the world by her collection of pet bots. In the end, Shelter is as much ghost story as SF -- Preston initially introduces himself as a ghost in the machine, and we later learn that the survivors of brainwiping are sometimes called ghosts. Toward the end, in a scene that must have been tough to write, Palwick has no less than three disembodied personalities talking through the voice of the intelligent house which is the novel's central image of shelter, and by now they're all distinct enough that it's like a family reunion. But even if that ending cues a few too many strings, it earns your respect. Shelter, almost certainly one of the major novels of the year, is a story about damage that wants desperately to believe in compassion, and it nearly gets you there.
As I said in yesterday's post, this is a really smart review: for one thing -- unlike the disastrous Publisher's Weekly review (which unfortunately is the one reprinted on Amazon!), it gets the foreground and background right. Nicholas, Meredith and Roberta are the center of the novel; all the socio-political stuff is background, albeit very important background. The PW reviewer read the book the other way around, and wound up cranky and confused as a result.

I'm particularly impressed by Wolfe's comparison to Victorian novelists, and not just because this book may strike contemporary readers (and has already struck some of them) as overblown and long-winded. I was working on my doctoral dissertation while I wrote Shelter, and since the diss was on 19th-century narrative, it makes sense that some of that would have bled through. As for Wolfe's opinion of where the book's overblown . . . well, I'm attached to the temple chapters and consider them crucial to setting up Meredith's character, but he may well be right that, to borrow Faulkner's famous dictum, these were darlings I should have slaughtered.

Re chronology: I turned in the manuscript of this book in late August, 2001 (although it will almost certainly be read as a post-9/11 novel), and finished the revisions my editor requested in 2003. The book's inception actually dates back to 1988, before I'd even started work on Flying in Place. Back then, I thought it was going to be a short story; if anyone had told me it would turn into a 576-page novel, I'd have run screaming in terror (which was what I wanted to do during much of the torturous writing process). On that note, I really hope this won't be my magnum opus, even if it retains its standing as my magnum!

Funniest line in the review: "Palwick's tough on mice." Ha! Good one!