Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Checking In


Hey, everybody. I just got e-mail from a worried blog reader who wondered what my absence here meant, and hoped I was okay.

I'm fine! Actually, better than fine, since we're leaving for another cruise on Friday. Yay!

I'm spending my time on Facebook these days because a) it gives me a sense of what my friends are up to and b) I get much more feedback there. If you're on FB too, please look for me. If you aren't on FB because you just never got around to it, think about joining: it's fun, and you don't have to spend vast amounts of time there. If you aren't on FB because you don't like it, I understand; feel free to shoot me an e-mail once in a while if you'd like to hear from me.

I'll still post long things like homilies here, although my new church -- which is having its own financial problems, and I'm praying won't go the way of the old one -- doesn't have me on the preaching schedule as often as the old one did. I'm only preaching about once a quarter now.

If there are any big publishing announcements, I'll post those here too.

Everyday nattering, though, is over at The Other Place.

Thanks! Be well, everyone!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Occupy the Kingdom of Heaven


Here's tomorrow's homily, a juggling act if ever there were one. You can read the pesky Parable of the Wedding Banquet here.

I'll be preaching at three services, and the last one will include the Blessing of the Animals, right in the middle of the service. We'll see if the barking dogs and wailing cats drown me out! As always, I'll bring photos of our three, but won't subject them to the alarm and indignity of being stuffed into their carriers and driven to a Place With Dogs.

*

Today we observe the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Born in 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis spent his early years partying with rich friends. He was a rising merchant himself, but after a religious conversion in his mid-twenties, he put aside his costly clothing to wear beggar’s rags. Determined to imitate Christ’s life by doing Christ’s work, Francis founded an order devoted to poverty. He turned from the riches of the marketplace to the splendors of the natural world, calling all creatures his brothers and sisters. He is the patron saint of the poor, of merchants – those two sound like a contradiction, until you know his story – of ecology, and of animals. At the 5:00 service today, we will bless companion animals in his name.

Today we observe the Feast of St. Francis. Today we are also called to ponder the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which contains its own contradictions. Who wouldn’t want to attend such a fabulous party? And why, after being dragged in off the street at the last minute, is one of the guests thrown out again for not wearing party apparel? That detail’s especially startling against the background of Francis pulling off his stylish threads to wear a hair shirt. Isn’t casual Friday what Christ would want? Since when does God have a dress code?

The parable offers some clues about why the people on the first guest list don’t show. “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” These guests have no time for a party; they have to work. The farmer grows his own food. He doesn’t need anybody else’s banquet. Another needs to tend to his business to make money. No handouts for these two, nosirree. They’ll put their own food on their own tables all by themselves.

In his homily last week, Father Kirk talked about how difficult it can be for us to recognize grace, the unearned gifts we receive from God. The parable of the wedding banquet is a prime example. When the invited guests reject God’s grace and send regrets, the banquet’s thrown open to everybody. But we still have to wonder what’s up with the dress code.

Nine years ago, I heard a very fine preacher explain that the wedding robe is metaphorical. The guest didn’t bring his best, most joyous self to God’s banquet. Whatever his body wore, his soul wasn’t clothed in its brightest garments. That’s a good answer, but it didn’t completely satisfy me. Nine years later, preparing to preach today, I found the tensions between wealth and poverty in Francis’ life starkly mirrored in the news. Exploring those parallels, I found another possible answer to that nagging question about the banquet.

However you feel about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the grassroots protest that has now spread across the country, no one can deny that issues of poverty and privilege are at its heart. The protest is driven by rage at economic injustice, at the growing chasm between rich and poor. Reading about it reminds me not only of Francis’ call to voluntary poverty, but of Jesus’ challenges to the wealthy and powerful of his own day. But the rhetoric on both sides is filled with anger, ugly us/them divisions. Where is the love Jesus insisted on? Watching this hurts.

And then, a few days ago, I found a blog maintained by a group of Boston-based Christians, many affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who call themselves Protest Chaplains. One of them, Kevin Vetiac, writes about marching down Wall Street: “We were there to be a specifically Christian witness against corporate greed and excess and the exploitation of the poor.” Protest Chaplain Marisa Egerstrom, writing on the CNN blog, describes the community created by the protesters. “Trained medics volunteer their skills to treat injuries and illness. The food station is ‘loaves and fishes’ in action: There is always more than enough to eat, and homeless folks eat side by side with lawyers and students off of donated plates.” Protest Chaplain Dave Woessner, describing Occupy Boston as “real community,” lists free food, free medical care, and “the ‘really really free market’ of clothes and supplies.”

Always more than enough to eat? That sounds like a banquet to me. These descriptions also sound like the early church in the Book of Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” And when I read about the “really really free market” of clothes, the wedding robe in today’s Gospel suddenly came into new focus.

The king in the parable sends his slaves out into the streets to gather anyone they can find. What if those streets are occupied by a real community, with a really really free market of clothing? What if anyone can have a wedding robe, just for the asking, and this unnamed guest has refused to ask: out of pride, out of sloth, out of shame at accepting the generosity of others? What if he won’t take anything he hasn’t earned or paid for? What if he refuses grace? If he can’t accept a free robe, how joyously can he accept the king’s hospitality, all that free food?

This is a partial answer too. Jesus told parables to make us ask questions, to make us think. When this reading comes around in another three years, our answers will look different, because we’ll be living in different circumstances.

There is no doubt, though, that Jesus wants us to occupy the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now. This isn’t the afterlife; it’s the reign of God here on earth. Jesus says it is within us and all around us. The keys to its gates are love of neighbors, forgiveness of enemies, and renunciation of wealth and power. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the Kingdom even in the midst of chaos and violence.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has produced disturbing reports of police brutality. They’re among the grimmest of the us/them stories coming out of the demonstrations. But Protest Chaplain Julia Capurso writes in delight about a police officer who, instead of beating or macing the sidewalk protesters, coached them instead: “You need practice! Stand together so you’ll look stronger! Keep your feet moving!” This officer proves that us/them divisions can be overcome, that those in power can reach over social barriers to offer aid and encouragement.

Here’s another story about power, poverty, and feasting. It happened right here in Reno, and it includes St. Francis’ beloved animals. During one of my volunteer shifts at the hospital, a nurse told me about a homeless patient who’d come to the ER. Waiting for some tests, the patient worried about his pets. “I had to leave them outside, with my shopping cart,” he said.

The nurse went outside, and found a shopping cart loaded with the patient’s possessions, including two clean, spacious pet carriers. In one, a calm, healthy cat was eating a piece of boneless chicken breast. In the other, a calm, healthy guinea pig was nibbling on a piece of biscotti. The nurse went back inside and told the patient, “Your pets are fine. Don’t worry.”

But a passerby saw the animals and called Animal Control. The patient was terrified that his beloved pets would be taken away. But after the Animal Control officer had looked at the cat and the guinea pig, he came back inside to talk to the patient. “Your pets look fine, sir, and I can tell you’re taking good care of them. But, you know, it’s dangerous for them out there, because someone could steal them or hurt them. So here’s my card. The next time you have to come to the ER, please call me, and I’ll come watch your animals to make sure they’re safe.”

Instead of abusing his power, the Animal Control officer used it to love a poor neighbor. I think both Francis and Jesus would approve. I think the Protest Chaplains would, too.

Amen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Return of The Necessary Beggar!


My favorite of my books, The Necessary Beggar, is finally available on Kindle. For months, the release date read "December 31, 2012." I'm so glad they got it out there early!

The weightless edition, just in time for the holiday season!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mass Casualty


The first I knew of the horrific crash at the Reno Air Races today was when my friend Arthur Chenin called me a little before 6:00 and said, "You should go back to the hospital." I'd only gotten back from my afternoon volunteer shift a few hours earlier.

I tried calling the ED to see if I was needed, but of course couldn't get through, so I threw my scrubs and ID badge back on and just drove down there. The ED itself was like something out of Breugel: More staff than I've ever seen in the department, because everyone had been called in, and much, much more seriously injured patients than I've ever seen in the department. As I commented later to Gary, the place made ER look like Sesame Street. I've never seen that much blood. The doctors all already had thousand-yard stares. One of them spotted me, plucked at my sleeve, and pulled me into a room where a patient was surrounded by at least five staff members, and somebody was saying "the CT looked really bad, we should go on to the next person," and I left that room and spotted a staff chaplain and asked him what to do and he told me just to go around letting people know we were there, but I couldn't get into any of the rooms because the beds were circled by so many medical people, and anyway those patients weren't conscious or in any shape to ask for chaplaincy services. I did speak briefly to a fellow in one of the minor-injury rooms -- he had a cut finger -- who, with a buddy, was watching the disaster coverage on the news, both of them wide-eyed, and I introduced myself but they didn't need anything, and I warned them that they'd probably have to wait much longer than usual to be seen, and they said, "Of course, of course, don't worry about it. Thank you for talking to us."

So I left again, spotted another staff chaplain, and followed her into the waiting room, thinking to find family members there, and indeed there were dazed and bruised and bloodied people, and other people frowning down at cell phones, but the staff chaplain and the nurses had it covered, so I went back into the ED and asked what I should do and someone said, "Go downstairs. They're setting up waiting areas for the victims' families in the auditoriums."

I went down there. I helped move tables and chairs around. Dietary was bringing in beverages and snacks, so I ate some myself, thinking I might need my strength. Various other chaplains wandered in: hospital chaplains, hospice chaplains, law-enforcement chaplains. I think every chaplain in Northern Nevada had converged on the place. We stood around chatting, and a few family members and other bystanders showed up, and we chatted with them, but at any one time, there were more chaplains in the room than chaplainees, and that was before a phalanx of smartly uniformed Trauma Intervention Program volunteers marched through the door.

To be sure, I heard my share of horrors. Several people said, "Body parts were everywhere." Someone said, "I had to step around brains." Someone said, "I saw a shoe with only a foot in it." Lots of survivors' guilt: "I heard a voice in my head telling me to get out of there, and I did, but now four of my friends are in the hospital." "I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, my box wasn't there anymore." I talked to someone who saw the pilot as the plane crashed: "You could tell he was trying really hard to wrestle that plane away from the grandstand and back towards the tarmac." I talked to two people who said, "We were on either side of our buddy, and a piece of metal came flying towards us, and he got hit and we didn't." I talked to someone who knew one friend was dead and didn't know about other friends; I talked to several people who had loved ones in surgery ("Oh, he got off really lightly, he only lost a finger, he'll be fine"); I talked to people who didn't actually know if their loved ones had been brought to this hospital and were desperately trying to get information.

Most surreal moments: 1) The snippets of Brahms' lullaby that came over the PA twice, alerting us that babies had just been born in the midst of the carnage. 2) The Code Blue that came over the PA for a room in the ED. Every emergency responder in the hospital's already there: you need to call a Code to summon them?

I told the people who came to the auditorium to take good care of themselves, told them to watch out for signs of PTSD (repetitive thoughts, nightmares, etc.), told them that clergy and therapists and journaling can help. I listened a lot. But, for the most part, there was nothing for me to do that fifty other people in the building couldn't do as well or better, so after three hours, I left.

As selfish as it may sound to put it this way, here's what I learned from this experience:

1. I've always wondered if I could handle trauma. After tonight, I think I could.

2. I must really like being a chaplain, because I wanted to do more tonight, not less (not, God knows, that I don't mourn and grieve the occasion).

3. In a mass disaster, every helping resource in the area shows up, and I trust those resources will continue to be available to everyone touched by this horror -- and the psychological toll alone will be huge -- in the coming months. So, weird as it sounds, the work I did during my much quieter afternoon shift today seems more important, because those folks weren't on the news. Nobody else was rushing to their side. The suicidal patient who sobbed and hugged me and was so grateful for prayer didn't have every chaplain in northern Nevada showing up to offer help. My weekly conversations with ordinary ED patients are (usually) much less dramatic than the ones I had tonight, but they're also less redundant.

Which is all a way of saying that my quiet little niche is fine with me, thanks.

And now I'm going to have a very delayed dinner. Rice Krispie Treats and peanuts just don't count as a meal.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Handwoven Two-Pocket Shoulder Bag


Here's my latest craft project. I used lengths of wooden dowel to reinforce the top of the bag and the bottoms of the two pockets. The body of the bag's one length of fabric, folded and sewn. Fun!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Full Set!


I inadvertently left the pretty white rock out of the first photo. My bad!

Caprica Climbing the Drying Rack


This is on Facebook, but I couldn't resist posting it here, too. Isn't she adorable?

Pretty Pebbles!


flask sent me these lovely pebbles, all individually wrapped and labeled, from New England and Canada! Thanks, flask! I love them!

Also cookies . . . which, sadly, I can't eat because of the gluten issue. But Gary and our houseguest will enjoy them!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why God's Love Matters


I'm cross-posting this from Facebook, because I think the question's important.

*

Last night, my friend Chris Coake, motivated by his intense dislike of Pat Robertson, posted some quotations from Jillette's new book about atheism. You can find that post, and responses to it, here.

My rather forceful dislike of these quotations (which imply that Christians are pathetic losers who need imaginary friends because they don't have real ones) resulted in a conversation in which Chris posed this question: "Why, exactly, is the love of Christ/God so valuable to people of faith, and not to atheists?"

There are all kinds of answers to that question, and other people have addressed it more thoroughly than I can, and my own answers change according to my mood and circumstances. But for me, right now, the answer can be summed up in two words: social justice.

Look around. There are a lot of people in the world who aren't loved by other people: prisoners, addicts, mental patients, the poor. Look at all the hatred that gets spewed on Facebook itself, not to mention a whole lot of other places. The kind of Christian faith I admire and try to practice -- because there are many versions I don't -- is predicated on the core belief that God loves everybody, and therefore we're called to love everybody, too. Even people we don't like. Even people we'd rather hate. Even people who hate us. Even -- oh, honestly, you can't mean it? -- Pat Robertson. (Insert gagging sound here.)

Jesus loved everybody, and made a particular point of loving the people the rest of his culture hated. Lepers. People with despised ethnic/tribal identities, like Samaritans. Women. The unclean, the untouchable, the stigmatized, the scapegoated. Jillette's quotations suggest that if we have the love of our family and friends, we don't need God; Jesus spoke out quite forcefully about the fact that people who remain within the cozy cocoon of their families and friends are barricading themselves against the broken, hurting world we're all called to help heal. Sure, we're called to love our families and friends, but we're also called to love "the least of these," the people who make us really uncomfortable, the people we've been told to have nothing to do with, the people we'd rather ignore. We're called to love everybody, like Jesus did. That's the whole point.

It's worth noting that even he didn't get there right away. It was a process. My favorite character in the Bible is the Samaritan woman -- despised both for her gender and her ethnicity -- who asks Jesus for healing for her daughter and, when he declines (because she's not the Right Kind of People), stands up for herself, very cleverly, and gets the blessing after all. She's the only person in the Gospels who argues with Jesus and wins, and she's a stigmatized minority. You go, girl!

The Christian story reminds us that radical love isn't easy, and that it will get you killed in, oh, three years or so if you really practice it. (MLK Jr. and Oscar Romero are more recent reminders of that fact.)

Now, to try to address some inevitable objections: can the non-faithful love this way? Sure. People who do this work as part of faith communities often have a lower burnout rate, though. And are there people who call themselves Christians who don't love this way? (Hi, Pat Robertson!) You betcha. But they aren't the only Christians out there, even if they want to make you think they are. (As a person on the left, I believe that the Christian Right is the Christian Wrong, even though I know the Christian Right considers the Christian Left the Christian Left Behind.)

As for God's love not mattering to atheists, well, I personally believe it's what sustains all of us even if we aren't aware of it. You're free to disagree.

And those lonely, pathetic people who need to believe that God loves them because nobody else does? Are you going to make fun of them? Really?

Let me tell you a story.

Many people reading this know that I volunteer as a lay ER chaplain (and if you're reading this on the blog, rather than on FB, you've probably already heard the story). One evening many years ago, I knocked on the door of a room and heard a soft, "Come in." Inside, an emaciated man hooked up to IVs lay on a gurney. When I told him I was the volunteer chaplain, he started to cry.

"No, I visit everybody here," I told him. "My being here doesn't mean you're dying. Don't be scared!"

"That's not why I'm crying," he said. "I am dying. I'm dying of AIDS, and fifteen minutes ago I was praying for God to send me a sign that he still loved me, and then you walked through the door. You're a sign from God."

He needed God's love precisely because other people had stigmatized and isolated him, but what reassured him of that love was a flesh-and-blood person, not an imaginary teddy bear. My friends who work with prisoners have lots of similar stories. God calls us to love everybody; surprisingly often, that's simply a matter of showing up.

Okay, I'll stop now. I'm sure I haven't persuaded anyone who didn't already agree with me, but well, Chris, you asked. For evidence that other people are on this side of the issue, rather than Pat Robertson's, check out The Christian Left and Seminary of the Street.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Outcomes


The surgery went fine, thank goodness. Our friend will be in the hospital for about a week; her husband will be staying with us, since they live a bit too far away for commuting to be practical. I'm grateful we have a guest room to offer.

Still no writing today, but I am wet-finishing two pieces of weaving I'm pleased with. Tomorrow the car goes to the garage and I'll be stuck home most of the day. Will. Write. Then.

Honest.

Later: Got a little writing done after all. Ha!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday


Hella original post title, what?

I didn't write today, alas. I wove a bit, swam a bit, wasted entirely too much time on Facebook, and wound up going to the hospital after all (to visit a friend, not to volunteer). The friend will have surgery tomorrow. I can't be more specific here for privacy reasons, but let's all pray for everyone facing surgery, shall we?

Meanwhile, my friend Inez flew back home to discover that a hailstorm had destroyed her car's windshield while she was gone. So while we're at it, let's pray for everyone dealing with severe weather. Also, car repairs.

Which reminds me that I have to take our car in to the shop, so they can fix my perpetually illuminated "check engine light" icon (which has already been fixed at least four times) long enough for the car to pass its smog so I can renew my registration. My mechanic assures me that the CEL issue doesn't interfere with the actual operation of the car. What he needs to do to fix it this time, though (since the other fixes have lasted about ten miles each) will cost about $400.

Gack.

Today the loom I want (used and discounted) was advertised on Ravelry, but someone else snatched it up ten minutes before I saw the ad. Just as well, given the car situation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday


WorldCon is over. I'm registered at Fourth Street Fantasy for next year and on the waitlist for World Fantasy this year. I bought the Laurie Edison ring (tourmaline and sterling silver, gorgeous) as a birthday gift to myself, but because she has to size it, I probably won't have it until after my birthday. Elsewhere in birthday land, I went to Inez' birthday party, thrown by several of her old friends in Reno, which featured a truly fantastic Day of the Dead birthday cake.

Tomorrow, Inez flies back to Iowa.

Many other people are already gone.

I'm both sad and relieved. For five days now, I've been on a little piece of My Planet. Now, most of My People are going home, and I have to resume the stranger-in-a-strange-land gig.

On the other hand, tomorrow I get to sleep in. And exercise again, which hasn't been possible during the con. And maybe get some writing done. I'm very glad I had the foresight to cancel my hospital shift tomorrow!

For the rest of this evening, I plan to be a vegetable.

WorldCon


This WorldCon has, at the very least, been wonderful for me. It may turn out to have been life-changing.

For one thing, I got to see all kinds of old friends, including my beloved former students Kurt Adams and Inez Schaechterle -- with whom I've hung out for much of the con -- and my editor/NYC buddies Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell and Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden (most of whom have also edited me at one time or another).

I got very satisfying strokes for the panels I moderated, especially the one on "Faith and Science," which went very smoothly despite the potential for catastrophe. I went to excellent panels and presentations. I got a lot of knitting done.

But I also got a lot of very specific reinforcement about my own identity as a writer. For instance:

* At my first panel, someone showed up with, I swear, a copy of every book and story I've ever written, asked me to sign them, and then gave me a beautiful piece of fluorite to thank me.

* When I was wandering around the Dealers Room, someone told me that "Gestella" is "the best werewolf story ever written."

* Only ten people attended my reading, but one of them was Cory Doctorow, a Much Bigger Name than I am, who appeared to genuinely love the reading and told me it reminded him of some of Kelly Link's work. She's an Infinitely Bigger Name than I am.

* I didn't expect many people to come to my signing today. It was a group signing, and Carrie Vaughn was signing at the same time; I figured she'd have lines around the block and I'd be twiddling my thumbs, so I brought my knitting. Carrie -- sitting next to me, as it turned out -- indeed had long lines, but mine weren't bad. I signed solidly for the first half hour. After that, it got a bit spottier, but not enough for me to get any knitting done. There were a few people who had multiple copies of my books, and someone who had a copy of my very first story, published in 1985 in Asimov's, and someone who said that he's bought anthologies simply because they contained stories I'd written, and several people who heaped praise on "Gestella." And towards the end of the hour, Mega-Infinitely Bigger Name Than I Am Carrie Vaughn turned to me and said, "Susan, I just want you to know that 'Gestella' blew my mind, and as a writer of werewolf fiction I tell other people to read your story, because I think it's definitive."

Holy crap.

* I've always been deeply moved and honored that Jo Walton, whose work I admire tremendously (and who's also much better known than I am), has said glowing things about my work in print. I was very excited to learn that she'd be at Renovation. I looked forward to meeting her in person. I was flattered when she asked if we could have tea together and hang out for an hour between panels, and more than a little startled when she said that one of the reasons she came to the con was to meet me, "because you don't travel much, and I knew you lived here."

Jo proceeded to give me a bracing pep talk. She reads the blog (hi, Jo!), and, among other things, said briskly, "It's perfectly obvious from your blog that you spiral down into depression and then pull yourself back out, but you need to get to more cons. The external validation's really important." We talked about cons: WorldCon and World Fantasy are often impossible because they conflict with teaching. Lately, the only cons I've attended have been WisCon and Mythcon, and even that's been spotty. I'm going to Mythcon again next year; I've been waffling about WisCon. Jo recommended the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, which I've heard about but have never gotten to. Inez and I are talking about sharing a room there next year.

After tea with Jo (coffee for me, actually, which may have been unwise that late in the afternoon), I went home to help Gary get ready for dinner, since we were having Inez and Kurt and Kurt's wife Shauna over. I babbled to Gary about all this. Before I'd even told him about Jo's depression comment, he said, "You need to get to more cons. This is doing you more good than all the meds you've ever taken. It's all about connection and community."

Yep.

I know this probably sounds like a lot of insufferable bragging, but I've effectively been in exile from my community for a long time. Part of that's geographical; a lot of it's been self-imposed; and it's been reinforced and deepened by my increasing marginalization within my department. Some people there admire the fact that I write, but as far as I can tell, none of my English Department colleagues read my fiction, or particularly like it if they do (other university friends, especially in the music department, have been loyal fans and a wonderful cheering section). Various of my colleagues clearly think I'm a little strange -- one person I like and admire once called me a "fanatic" to my face -- and between all that and the fact that the job's become more difficult and less rewarding for all of us, leading to a universal nosedive in morale, I haven't felt deeply affirmed at work. I know some of that's my fault, especially because I'm terrible at certain kinds of political games, but blaming myself only makes me feel worse.

Church has filled in a lot of the holes -- faith's really a huge antidepressant -- but it can't do everything.

The recent three-year grief-fest hasn't helped any of this, of course (and that's not my fault, and I think my reactions have been entirely human and understandable).

So I went to WorldCon figuring that I'd see some old friends and that nobody else would know who I was, and that would be okay, because it would be my fault, because I haven't been writing much.

What I discovered instead is that people in my field know my work and admire it. People I've never met know my work and admire it. People I admire, blazingly successful and famous and talented people, know my work and admire it. I've written things that matter to other human beings.

It is very difficult to communicate what this feels like. Like floating in airless space and then finding yourself standing on solid ground in a beautiful forest? Like being a ghost and then regaining a body? (Good heavens: am I empathizing with Sauron and Voldemort?) Those are cheesy metaphors, and unsatisfying besides. Let's just say that I've found my country again, or my planet, and learned that I was always welcome there.

So yes, I'll definitely try to get to more cons. I'm exhausted, and I'll be grateful to get back to a normal schedule when WorldCon's over, but I'm going to be very sad when everyone leaves.

In the meantime, I may buy myself a token of citizenship. Y'know how in some fantasy stories, people think their adventures Elsewhere were just a dream, until they discover that they still have a coin or a key or a crown they were given there? The fluorite rock would work, but I can't keep it with me all the time, so I may indulge my shopping obsession and buy a ring. Laurie Edison makes gorgeous jewelry and sells it at cons. It's pricy, so I've never bought any of it. But today I tried on a series of rings and both Laurie and I went, "Oh, wow," at one particular one with a shiny blue stone that looks like opal but I think is something else I can't remember at the moment.

If that's still available tomorrow, I may spring for it, as a sign of renewed commitment to my SF/F citizenship. If it isn't available, I'll cart the fluorite around, maybe, or get some smaller thing. Either way, I'll be registering for Fourth Street.

This is an exceedingly long post. Thank you for bearing with me!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Today's Keeper


Among volunteer chaplains, it's axiomatic that even one good visit a shift means it was worth coming to the hospital that day. Some volunteers say all their shifts include a visit like that. Mine don't -- some shifts are dull, and some are exhausting and infuriating -- but today's did.

A nurse told me a psych patient had asked for a chaplain. The patient brightened when I introduced myself. "I'm glad you're here. I've been waiting for you. Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Why's God letting me suffer like this?"

Oh, man. Theodicy 101. "I don't know. I do know that it's okay to ask questions, and it's okay to be angry. You can yell at God. God can take it."

The patient nodded. "That makes sense. That's a good enough answer for me."

I relaxed, since that particular subject usually gets a lot more complicated. "Would you like me to pray with you?"

"I don't know how to pray."

"That's okay; I do. It's kind of what I do around here." The patient laughed, and I offered my standard-prayer-with-personalization (you can find my Hospital Prayer 101 post here).

By the end of the prayer, the patient was crying. That happens pretty often, so I'm used to it. When other people have prayed over me, especially for healing, I've sometimes cried too: there's something about a) knowing that your concerns have been heard and b) handing them over to Somebody Else that tends to release the floodgates.

I handed the patient some tissues. "Here, you can keep the pack. This is something else I do around here."

The patient laughed again. "Can I tell you something?"

"Of course."

"That prayer moved me more than any prayer I've ever heard."

"Thank you!" I said, floored. Patients often say "that was a nice prayer" or even "that was beautiful," but I'm not used to superlatives.

"May I have a hug?"

"Of course," I said, and hugged the patient, and then moved on to the rest of what was a fairly chaotic, and intermittently crappy, shift. But it was okay. I had my keeper. It mattered to someone that I showed up today.

Please note that I'm not claiming any special skills here: I think any chaplain who walked into that room would have had the same effect, since the patient was clearly primed and eager for the visit. But I'm selfishly glad that I was the one who was there. It's also axiomatic among volunteer chaplains -- and volunteers in general -- that we get much more than we give.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Same Boat


Here's tomorrow's homily, which I'll be giving at the St. Stephen's reunion in Wadsworth, on the Pyramid Lake reservation. The readings are 1 Kings 19:9-19 and Matthew 14:22-33. Special thanks to Ken Houghton for helping me find a copy of the Patrick O'Leary poem on very short notice!

*

Good morning. I’m delighted to be here, and to see so many of you again, and I’d like to thank Eric Heidecker for inviting me to preach today.

This morning’s readings are about people, scared out of their wits, who learn that they can’t get away from where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing. Elijah, hunted by people who want to kill him, flees to Horeb, only to have God command him to go back. He still has kings and prophets to annoint. He doesn’t get to run away.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is still badly shaken by the death of John the Baptist. His first attempt to sneak away for some alone time was interrupted by a huge crowd, desperate for healing, who followed him. He healed them, but then they needed their supper. We heard about the famous Feeding of the Five Thousand last Sunday.

When the story picks up this morning, I imagine that Jesus is pretty tired. “Finally!” he must be thinking. “They’re all healed. They’re all fed. Now I can send everyone home and have some time to myself.” And so he does: packs the disciples off in a boat, dismisses the crowds, and climbs up a mountain to pray. He spends all night there, a much-needed mini-sabbatical. But in the morning, he again has work to do. The disciples, hapless as ever, are stuck in their boat in the middle of a storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.

I’m told that the Sea of Galilee is quite geologically similar to Pyramid Lake. The winds on Pyramid Lake can be really dangerous, and anyone who’s been in a small boat, or even a larger one, knows how terrifying a storm on the water can be. People die out there. Anyone who knows the water knows that, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the disciples were frightened out of their minds even before they saw a ghostly figure walking towards them across the churning water.

Seeing the ghost freaks them out even more, until Jesus speaks words of comfort. That’s when Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Peter’s always doing stuff like this, trying to set himself apart. Yesterday, August 6, was the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbed up the mountaintop and was joined by Moses and Elijah just before being clothed in light. Remember how Peter responded to that event? “Hey, Jesus, let’s build some houses and stay up here.” That time, Jesus said no. Sorry, Peter. We have to go back down the mountain. We have work to do.

This time, he says yes. Peter isn’t speaking out of pride now; he’s frightened, and Jesus wants to comfort him, because that’s what Jesus does. So he calls Peter, who starts walking on water just like his beloved teacher. Mind you, the storm hasn’t stopped yet. It won’t stop until Jesus gets back into the boat. I think Peter’s so desperate to be out of that blasted, bucking boat, so desperate to rejoin his Lord, the source of his safety, that he doesn’t even realize at first what’s happening. But the minute he looks down and sees the whitecaps under his feet, he panics again. He sinks, and Jesus has to haul him, sputtering and coughing, back up.

Where does Jesus take him? Back into the boat, while the storm’s still raging. Sorry, Peter. You can’t stay on the mountain and leave your friends behind. You can’t get out of the boat and leave your friends behind, either, not for good. You still have work to do. You’re in the same boat with the other disciples. You’re in the same boat with Elijah, and with me. You’re in the same boat with everyone who has heard God’s voice, whether it’s offering comfort over the raging winds of the storm or issuing commands in the perfect silence afterwards.

God’s people don’t get to run away, and they don’t get to opt out. Jonah learned that. Elijah learned it. Jesus learned it, when he prayed for the cup to pass from him and it didn’t.

All of us here this morning are in that same boat. All the baptized are in the same boat, whether we’re safely ensconced in a church we love, or bailing furiously to try to keep a parish from sinking, or flailing in the freezing water after our beloved home has vanished under the waves. Whatever else is happening in our lives, whatever storms we’re riding out and whatever fears we’re facing, we’re still bound by the promises we made at baptism. Our job is to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to seek justice for the oppressed, and to welcome the stranger. Sometimes that work is exhausting. Sometimes it’s joyous and uplifting. It’s always with us.

This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds us of the promises that come with this backbreaking responsibility. God will grant us the rest we need, the mountaintop respites we need to replenish ourselves. If we listen for the voice of God, we will indeed hear it. In the midst of chaos, we may discover a startling ability to walk on water, however briefly, and when we sink, Jesus will haul us up by the scruff of our necks. Necessity is leavened by grace.

Above and beyond those promises lies the larger one, the ultimate one, the promise that the ends we fear -- economic collapse, disaster, death -- are not really the end. Beyond death lies resurrection. To get there, though, you have to stay in the boat.

I have to admit that when St. Stephen’s closed, I thought about simply leaving the church. I’m at St. Paul’s now, and I like it, but it’s still not home for me, not the way St. Stephen’s was. I know it never will be unless I stick with it, so I keep doggedly going to church every Sunday. But now St. Paul’s is having some of the same problems -- financial shortfalls, sparsely filled pews -- that brought down St. Stephen’s. This is happening to mainstream denominations all over the country, and it’s only one symptom of the very scary economic storm the entire country is weathering right now. The fact that churches are having so much trouble means that the people they serve are having even more trouble. When churches struggle, our baptismal promises become more important, not less.

I’m praying that St. Paul’s will pull through. In the meantime, I still volunteer as a lay hospital chaplain. That work reminds me, every week, how many people in this storm need any rescue we can offer, whether it takes the form of a hot meal, a cup of cold water, or simply the lifeline offered by anyone willing to listen. And it reminds me every week that when human rescues fail, God is still there, waiting to haul us out of the water by the scruff of our necks.

I don’t believe that belonging to a church is the only way to do God’s work of healing the world. It’s the way that works best for me, and for many of us. In church, we can all pull on the oars together. But church is only one vessel. God has given other people other vessels, and will give us other vessels, too, if we need them. Ultimately, though, the planet itself -- God’s beloved creation -- is the boat we share with everyone else who lives here. This ship, we can’t jump.

Shortly after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, poet Patrick O’Leary wrote a poem called “The Boat.” I would like to close by reading it. It speaks to the time when it was written, but I believe it speaks to our time, too, and to Jesus’.
The Boat
by Patrick O'Leary

I am in a boat.
No. We are in a boat.
And it's not a boat
but you know what I mean.

And the boat is going somewhere
Or maybe nowhere.
But it is floating for now.
Unless it's sinking.

It is so comforting to be in a boat.
To have a vessel. A destination.
We don't know the destination.
But at least we're floating.

But then there is the ocean
Or this small part of its depth
That surrounds us, buoys us
As if it wanted us to be here get there.

We do not think about the depths
Below us. The cold dark water
Unbreathable undrinkable.
Who would want to drink an ocean even if they could?

So this boat. This water.
You and I
between here and there.
Is somebody rowing?

In this whole world
There is only you and I and this boat
On this ocean. And what happens
depends on us or the ocean.

I say we have to be very careful.
We are only so strong.
A boat is a delicate thing.
And I have never seen an ocean broken.

I say we love each other
But that is so easy to say.
That means knowing
who we're rowing with.

We did not choose the ocean.
We did not choose the boat.
We did not choose each other.
But we must choose.
Amen.

Monday, August 01, 2011

First Woven Scarf


Actually, it's the second, but the first was so ugly I'm not counting it. This one's not perfect, but I'm still happy with it. It's 7 inches wide by 61 inches long; hard to tell scale from this photo. Weaving it took less than two days!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lotsa Stuff


Hi, everybody! Sorry not to have posted in a few days; I'm spending a lot of time over at FB these days. It really is a fun way to keep in touch with people.

A few items of note:

* For those of you in Reno: On Saturday August 13 at 2:30, I'll be giving a talk and reading at the Nevada Historical Society. This is part of a Worldcon promotion. The curator says that after my talk, "we will show the bad sci-fi movie 'Godmonster of Indian Flats' for Nevada-themed sci-fi." Mark your calendars! Bring popcorn!

* I now have 71,000 words of the rough draft, with completion of same estimated around August 10.

* I love weaving on my new Cricket loom and can't wait to try different techniques. My first scarf was short and ugly; the second, currently in progress, is longer and less ugly.

* It's really wonderful to be going into August without having to worry about prepping fall classes. I needed this sabbatical!

* Caprica is well; she goes to the vet for her FIV/FLV tests tomorrow, and, we hope, will be "released to GenPop," as Gary puts it, soon thereafter.

* Last night we watched a TV special about the Serengeti. As a baby elephant and mom traipsed across the screen, James Earl Jones praised the devotion of elephants and said, "The bond between mother and daughter can last fifty years." My first thought was, "Lucky elephant. I only had my mother for forty-nine." I'm doing better, but still miss her.

* There was a wildfire across the street two nights ago, about half a mile away. We watched it from Gary's study; when someone started pounding on our front door, I thought maybe we were being evacuated, but no, it was two friends who'd come over to watch the fire. Summer sport in Reno! (Cars lined the street, too.) Luckily, they got it under control quickly, and there was never any threat to structures.

I think that's about it. Hope you're all well!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cat We Said We Wouldn't Get


Remember my noble resolve not to get another cat until after my sabbatical, when I'd be better able to handle vet bills on a restored salary? That lasted all of twenty-six days.

Today the Nevada Humane Society sent out an urgent appeal via Facebook for people to adopt pets: they're swamped with dogs and cats, and were offering reduced adoption fees: $5 for an adult cat and $30 for a kitten. And they were making dire noises about how animals would have to be euthanized if they didn't find homes. So, sucker that I am, I asked Gary if we could adopt a kitten now; sucker that he is, he agreed.

There were a lot of people there, adopting, which was heartening, because I've never seen so many animals in the building. The appeal had said they had "hundreds" of cats, and they weren't kidding: cat-cages three-deep, housing several cats and kittens each, lined the walls of each room and hallway, and that's outside the normal cat rooms. (There were also quite a few rabbits and other small mammals. We didn't even go into the dog kennels, but I'm sure they were similarly crowded.)

We walked around for a while, checking out the kittens. All of them were adorable, but we wanted a female, so that narrowed it down. (When we got Bali, we thought he was a female, until the fateful surgery, and by then we weren't about to return him.) We also wanted a cat we'd be able to tell easily from the other two; there were a lot of gorgeous all-black kitties, but we already have Bali, and we saw several very pretty kitties who were the spitting image of Figaro.

We also had fairly exacting age requirements: young enough to be accepted easily by the two grown cats, but not so young that early weaning would cause behavior problems. A lot of Bali's weirdnesses can be traced, we think, to his not getting enough time with his mom. I fell in love with a very spunky black-and-white kitten, but she was only four weeks old, and Gary said, "Nope. I don't want to go through that again." And there were other black and white females, but I thought it would be better to have a cat who didn't remind me of Harley.

I thought an orange cat would be nice; I've never had one, and there were lots of cute orange kittens. The problem was that they all seemed to be boys. "Why not ask if they have any females?" Gary said.

So I did, and a friendly staffer checked on the computer, and sure enough, back in one of the cat rooms, there was a four-month-old female who'd just been brought in today (after being spayed at Animal Control next door). The staffer took us to visit, and we fell in love with her, and because she's just at the cusp of when they define cats as adults -- although technically, they're kittens for the first year -- we only had to pay five dollars to adopt her. He told us that orange females are unusual, so that was another plus.

We named her Caprica. (BSG fans out there will recognize "Caprica Kitty" as a pun on "Caprica City.") She has incredibly soft fur and lovely spots; we think maybe there's some Bengal in there. Her purr fills the room. She's litter trained. She's curious and friendly, and has already given me head bumps. We think she must have had previous owners and gotten out or been abandoned; she's clearly been well cared for.

We're keeping her in isolation for a week or two, as we do with all new cats. She needs time to heal from her surgery, and we need to get her tested for FIV/FLV -- which NV Humane Society doesn't do, because it's too expensive, although she's had all her other shots -- and keeping her apart from the other cats will give everyone time to calm down and get used to the idea of being roommates. Right now, Bali's an even needier wreck than usual (he had fits the minute Gary got the carrying case out of the garage, even though it wasn't for him), and Figaro and Caprica are facing off on their respective sides of my study door, trying to suss each other out.

See? Facebook's useful after all! Also a lot of fun; I'm really enjoying it.

So now we're up to our full three-cat complement again. I thought that was the limit for cat ownership in the county, but the NHS staffer said no, the limit's seven. "You shouldn't have told her that," Gary said. Hmmmmmmm . . . .

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Little and Big


Here's today's homily; the readings are 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

I'm preaching again in two weeks, at the St. Stephen's reunion. I've rarely, if ever, had to write two homilies this close together, and I have deep respect for people who do this every Sunday.

*

In November 1998, Esquire published a cover article by Tom Junod about Fred Rogers, host of the beloved children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Junod’s immensely moving profile includes this story:
On December 1, 1997 . . . a boy . . . told his friends to watch out, that he was going to do something "really big" the next day at school, and the next day at school he took his gun and his ammo and his earplugs and shot eight classmates who had clustered for a prayer meeting. Three died, and they were still children, almost. The shootings took place in West Paducah, Kentucky, and when Mister Rogers heard about them, he said, "Oh, wouldn't the world be a different place if [that boy] had said, 'I'm going to do something really little tomorrow,'" and he decided to dedicate a week of the Neighborhood to the theme "Little and Big." He wanted to tell children that what starts out little can sometimes become big, so they could devote themselves to little dreams without feeling bad about them.
The really big news this week is the horrific massacre in Norway, which seems to be everywhere we look, inescapable and omnipresent. Our Good News this week, our Gospel reading, is about really little things, the seemingly insignificant items we can so easily overlook: the mustard seed that grows into a large, life-giving shrub; yeast, invisible when stirred into dough, that transforms it into the miracle of bread; a fine pearl, grown from a grain of sand, that’s worth more than everything else in the market.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, dwells in and results from these really little things. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I have a strong hunch that he was thinking about this Gospel passage when he planned his week of “Little and Big” programs.

Jesus is speaking metaphorically, indirectly. As usual, he doesn’t tell us everything, but forces us to figure things out for ourselves. From this morning’s metaphors, here are a few things we can figure out about the Kingdom of Heaven.

First, it requires patience. Mustard seeds don’t become large plants overnight.

Second, it requires faith. You won’t plant the mustard seed unless you believe it will grow. You won’t look for the pearl unless you believe the market contains things worth finding.

Third, it requires discernment. Here’s a jumble of stuff in a market stall: souvenir t-shirts and plastic fridge magnets and 100% genuine local handicrafts made in China, and hey, the merchant’s offering a special sale on paste-glass rhinestones, five hundred for ninety-nine cents, and over here, almost hidden in a corner, is a small, round white thing with smelly bits of oyster still clinging to it. What are you looking for, and what will you buy?

And finally, attaining the Kingdom may require sacrifice, both of wealth and reputation. Dude! You can get five hundred of these pretty paste-glass rhinestones for ninety-nine cents, and you’re selling all that you have to buy that little smelly round white thing? Are you nuts?

A firm grasp on history helps with all this. Just as that large shrub started out as a tiny seed, famous King Solomon started out as “a little child” in the midst of “a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” We most easily discern the Kingdom of God, then, when we look both forward and back.

In fact, the Kingdom is everywhere around us, and also, Jesus promises, within us. Because our really big news is so often about atrocity -- Norway, 9/11, Columbine -- all of us need to cultivate the discipline of seeking out and tending the Kingdom, the Good News that starts out really little, usually where no one else is looking. It might show up, for instance, in a stable, in an obscure corner of an occupied territory, in the form of that weakest of creatures, a newborn human infant.

But that was two thousand years ago. If the Kingdom is everywhere, invisible and omnipresent as yeast in bread, where do we find it now?

With luck, all of us have many answers to that question. Here are two of mine.

First, I firmly believe that we become citizens of the Kingdom, helping to create and maintain it, when we perform even the smallest acts of mercy and charity, loving our neighbors as Jesus commands us to do. The really big bad news, the horror we see on TV, is often the work of people who’ve used terror and violence to tear huge holes in creation. It’s easy for us to despair, to believe that nothing can fix these gaping rents. Certainly we cannot do so by ourselves. But each tiny act of kindness is one stitch, repairing those holes, and enough small stitches will mend even the most tattered fabric.

Some of you know that I volunteer as a lay ER chaplain. On Friday, I helped an elderly man eat his lunch, cutting his turkey for him because he couldn’t do it himself. That tiny act couldn’t fix what happened in Norway, but it made me –- and him -– feel better. It kept me focused on what I can do instead of on what I can’t, and it reminded me that even the smallest kindnesses are infinitely valuable to those they help. When any of us feed our neighbors, we expand the Kingdom, giving despair and atrocity a little less growing room.

Here is my second example of finding the Kingdom in something small and easily overlooked. A few years ago, my husband and I spent a week in Honolulu, staying in one of the garish Waikiki mega-hotels. We love to snorkel, and before flying to Oahu, we’d read guide books describing the best snorkel spots on the island. Most, because they’re in the guide books, are overcrowded tourist meccas.

Our first morning on the island, we strolled along the Waikiki beach until we reached a small park, a series of pocket beaches separated by jetties. On a whim, we asked one of the lifeguards, “Hey, any good snorkeling around here?”

The lifeguard pointed two jetties over. “There. The fish love the rocks and the coral.”

We walked over to the tiny beach he’d indicated, donned the snorkel gear we’d brought along just in case, entered the water -- and found ourselves in heaven. The water was crystalline, filled with brilliantly colored fish, so numerous they could not be numbered or counted. We watched schools of angelfish, butterflyfish, yellow tang. We stayed there for hours, hovering above endless parades of fish. We saw no other humans. This little beach wasn’t in the guidebooks. All of our fellow snorkelers had rushed to the tourist meccas.

We returned to our pocket beach every day. It never failed to delight us, to create deep joy. We didn’t sell everything we had to keep visiting it –- although airfare to Hawai’i can feel like that –- but we did forego a host of more famous, high-profile attractions.

Coral polyps, as most of you probably know, are very small animals. Coral reefs take even longer to grow than mustard plants do, and like mustard plants, they support an enormous diversity of life. If Jesus had been a snorkeler, I’m sure the Gospels would include some parables about reefs.

I’m home in Reno now, but that little reef is still inside me. During the really big news from Norway, I’ve found myself revisiting it, cherishing its fragile peace and beauty. In the midst of horror, it comforts me. May all of us find such Kingdoms, and help others find them.

Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dangerous Woman


Today was my first volunteer shift at the hospital since Mythcon. It was good to be back, but I guess my reputation as a wannabe social worker -- which is what a former spiritual-care supervisor always called me, in some exasperation -- has solidified. When I checked in with the ED case manager to see if there was anyone I should see first, he said, "No, the social-service cases are all gone."

Ha!

So I didn't get to research special-needs AA meetings today, or call shelters to get beds for homeless patients, or hand out business cards for our local crisis hotline to single parents struggling with employment issues. My most weighty visit was with an elderly patient who was having trouble communicating, but who managed to croak out "Food!" I alerted a nurse, who ordered a food tray. When lunch appeared -- turkey and stuffing, Thanksgiving in the ED -- I cut up the turkey and helped the patient eat. It reminded me poignantly of doing the same for my father.

Near the end of the shift, I did a quick sweep of the ED waiting room, which is part of my official territory (although, as usual, no one there needed my services). I jotted down the number of people I'd spoken to, since we have to keep a census of each shift, and was heading back into the department proper when a security guard snagged me. "Hey, Susan, hey, c'mere a minute, okay?"

I know most of the security guards pretty well; they're some of my favorite people at the hospital. This guard, whom I'll call A, took me gently by the arm, swung me around so I was looking directly into one of the ceiling-mounted security cameras, and said into his walkie-talkie, "Hey, B, I think I've found the security threat. Is this her? Hey, B, look at your camera! Is this her?"

"Yeah," came the crackling reply. "That's her."

"What the heck?" I said.

A was laughing. "B saw you on the cameras and told me there was a suspicious woman walking around writing things down."

"Why would that be dangerous?"

"Beats me." A shrugged and went off to respond to some other situation, hopefully one more deserving of his attention, and I went back into the department to finish my shift.

We now have a spiffy new ED with private rooms for each patient, but some of the rooms in our old quarters had three beds per cubicle, with only thin cotton sheets between them. In the old digs, a nurse once came up to me, laughing, and said, "Hey, y'know that lady who asked you for prayer in Room 12? I just brought meds to the patient next to her, and that patient whispered, 'One of your nurses is sneaking around praying over people!' I said, 'Ma'am, that's our chaplain. She's supposed to do that. It's her job.'"

As far as I know, that's the only other time I've ever alarmed anyone in the hospital. But I was really curious about the writing-as-terrorist-threat issue, so after I signed out, I stopped by the security office. When I knocked on the door, I heard A, inside, call out, "Hey, B, it's the dangerous woman!"

B was rather embarrassed, and couldn't really explain why I'd worried him so. "You were walking, and then you stopped dead and wrote something down, and I thought, 'I need to find out what this is, even if it's none of my business.'"

"But what could it have been that would have been dangerous?" I asked him. As Gary pointed out, I'm hardly the only person in the hospital who carries a clipboard and takes notes.

B didn't answer. "You could have been drawing plans for how to take the place out," A said cheerfully. I showed B my notes to reassure him, and then noticed something odd in the office next to his.

"Why do you guys have naked store-window mannequins in here?"

Actually, only one mannequin was naked. The other was wearing a t-shirt and a cardboard smiley face. "They're to model the new hospital t-shirts," A said. (Gary's theory was that the guards use these things to practice pat-downs.)

"Can I take a picture? I gotta get a picture of this." I took a picture, and they admired it, but we agreed that I probably shouldn't post it anywhere online, in case someone decided to magnify it and somehow acquired HIPAA-protected info, like the identity of the mannequins. So you'll just have to use your imagination.

I suspect B took some more teasing from his co-workers after I left. Poor guy! Better for him to be over-zealous in his duties than not careful enough.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adventures in Alternative Medicine


Today I went to see my acupuncturist, who's also a western-trained MD, for the third time. The first time I saw him, he sternly advised me to get back on western stomach meds and then used his needles to work on my sinuses, which indeed felt better. The second time I saw him, I mentioned writer's block and frustration and he did a longer session, something called "detox acupuncture," which I'd ordinarily scoff at, except that it also made me feel better.

That was at the end of June, right before my state-employee health insurance crashed and burned on July 1. (Our family deductible has now gone up to $3,800, which means that if I'm lucky, I could get through the entire year without insurance covering anything.) "Next time," I told the good doc, "I'll have to pay your full fee, not just the $25 copay."

He pondered this. "I charge $130 for a private session. I really think you should have one more detox session, and then you can start coming to the clinics." He offers acupuncture clinics where he'll treat a group of people at once, for only $40 apiece. "But you have to decide what you can afford."

I talked to Gary about it; the treatment really had made me feel better, and Gary said, "If it's just once, and it helps, then pay the $130."

So I went back today. Before we got to the needles, I asked the good doc about adrenal fatigue, which I know is highly controversial in allopathic circles. Does he believe in it? He pondered this and offered a thoughtful and carefully nuanced version of "no." (That's why I love this guy: he really does combine the best of both worlds, and so far he's never made me feel like I'm asking a stupid question.)

So then we got to the needles. "Last time we detoxified the front of your body," he told me. "This time we'll be doing the back. The front works on internal dragons; the back works on external dragons."

"Mmmmph?" I said, already lying on my stomach on very comfy cushions, which meant I was talking into one of those donut pillows massage therapists use. "Dragons?"

"Chinese dragons," he said. "They're good dragons. They chase away evil. The internal dragons chase away internal evil; the external dragons chase away external evil."

"Ah," I said, and he inserted the needles and left me to "cook" for a few minutes, as he put it, and then came back to check on me.

"How you doing?"

"Fine," I said into the donut pillow.

"Remember the dragons."

"I'm trying to visualize them."

There was a short pause -- I'm sure he was pondering -- and then he said, "They have long mustaches, and they're slightly iridescent, and they like to drink tea and don't eat peanuts."

"Ah," I said.

"No peanuts," he said, and left the room again, leaving me to reflect on what has to be the strangest conversation I've ever had with a medical professional. But I was all comfy and feeling very nice, except that my hands kept falling asleep, and I still couldn't visualize the dragons, although I did have a vivid mental image of a sleek black panther lounging by the side of the massage table. (What the heck was in those needles? I hear you asking.)

When he came back in, I mentioned the circulation issue, and he removed the needles so I'd be able to move around again, and I told him about the panther, wondering if he'd laugh. He didn't bat an eye. "Well, the dragons are just a metaphor. Your dragon might be a panther. Someone else's might be an eagle." I suspect my panther had more to do with watching Crystal the were-panther on True Blood the other night than with anything else, but that's okay; I'm a champ at metaphor, after all, and I was all relaxed and happy-like, so I floated out the door to pay my $130.

I like this doctor a lot. I do not like his young front-office person one bit. I'm sure she's a lovely human being, adored by her family and friends, but every time I've been there she's struck me as supercilious, with a tendency to lecture, and with the uncanny ability to look down her nose at me even when she's sitting down and I'm standing up.

"That will be a $25 copay," she said.

"No, actually --"

"I need you to pay that," she snapped, as if I'd been planning to offer her my firstborn child or barter with a stick of Juicy Fruit instead.

"Actually, I need to pay more," I said, trying not to snap back. "It's after July 1. My insurance just changed. So I need to pay the $130."

She scowled. "You can't pay the $130 if you have insurance."

"No, my deductible's $3,800, so --"

She slid into lecture mode. "The $130 is for private-pay patients without insurance. I'll have to see what the bill will be with insurance." She got up, went into another room, came back with a sheaf of papers, typed on her computer for a bit, and then said, "If we bill your insurance company, that will be $289."

"Excuse me? Two hundred and eighty-nine dollars?"

She flashed me a phony smile. "At least you'll pay your deductible sooner!" Mentally, I was trying to sic panthers and dragons on her. I know it's not her fault, but couldn't she be just a little bit sympathetic and acknowledge the utter absurdity of the system?

"I came here prepared to pay $130. That's what my husband and I budgeted."

She resumed looking down her nose. "If you pay the $130, we won't bill your insurance and it won't count towards your deductible."

Reader, I paid the $130. If I go to any of the clinics, that $40 fee won't count towards insurance either. It seems absolutely insane to me that with insurance, the treatment costs more than twice as much as it would without: the extra money goes into administrative expenses, no doubt.

Dragons and panthers and bills, oh my.

Yeah. You know I couldn't resist that one. Anyway, I was feeling a bit less floaty when I left, thinking in annoyance that the dragons and panthers hadn't worked very effectively against the evil of the billing system. As we all know, though, American healthcare is one heckuva job even for the most potent metaphorical ninja-beasts. Or maybe somebody slipped the dragons some peanuts; as Gary observed, they're probably allergic.

A dragon in anaphylactic shock: now there's an image.

Right. I'm clearly punchy. Must go work on the book. With material like this, who needs to write SF/F?

My Worldcon Schedule


Worldcon begins on August 17 and will be held at the Convention Center. I don't see the knitting panel here, but will make inquiries. Note that I'm moderating both the Nevada-as-setting panel and the religion panel, which should be interesting. I've moderated faith discussions at WisCon, so I hope this will go as well. In any case, I'll be busy that weekend!

Wed 12:00 - 13:00, Welcome to Reno (Panel), A02 (RSCC)

An introduction of what to see and do in Reno by locals!

Arthur Chenin (M), Karyn de Dufour, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Richard Hescox, Mignon Fogarty, Susan Palwick

Wed 18:00 - 19:00, Nevada as a Setting for SF & Fantasy(Panel), A03 (RSCC)

Nevada's mountains and deserts have provided a fertile landscape for writers and movie makers for over 150 years. Join regional writers to learn more about the books and movies that helped to define this area.

Susan Palwick (M), Colin Fisk, Connie Willis, Mignon Fogarty, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Thu 11:00 - 12:00, When Faith and Science Meet (Panel), A09 (RSCC

Many SF tales, from Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" to Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz to Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, deal with the intersection of unexpected discoveries on the faith of the characters. Cultural discourse often presents religious faith and science as polar opposites, and certainly there's a long history of conflict between them. But many people of many faiths have happily and successfully reconciled their beliefs with a scientific worldview, and SF/F is no stranger to spirituality, either. Both Joanna Russ and David Hartwell have described SF/F as essentially religious. This panel will present a civil conversation -- between people who respect both faith and science -- about how the two inform each other, both in SF/F and in the rest of the world.

Susan Palwick (M), Eric James Stone, Laurel Anne Hill, Moshe Feder, Norman Cates

Thu 14:30 - 15:00, Reading: Susan Palwick (Reading), A14 (RSCC)

I'll probably read some short chapters from Mending the Moon about my invented comic book, Comrade Cosmos.

Thu 22:00 - 23:00, Short Talks about Art (Talk), A03 (RSCC)

Susan Palwick, Light and Shadow: Family, Pulp Fiction, and the West.

Kelley Caspari, Susan Palwick

I'll be reading a short essay, originally published in NYRSF three hundred years ago, about my grandfather Jerome Rozen, a well-known pulp artist who painted some of the original covers for The Shadow.

Fri 11:00 - 12:00, KaffeeKlatsch: Fri 11:00 (KaffeeKlatsch), KK1(RSCC)

Howard Tayler, Susan Palwick, Ken Scholes

Sat 12:00 - 13:00, River and Echo: The Evolution from Victim to Hero (Panel), A05 (RSCC)

Irene Radford (M), Lee Martindale, Susan Palwick, Charles Oberndorf

The description got cut off, but I think the title works fine. As a longtime Whedonphile, I'm delighted to be on this panel.

Sat 14:00 - 15:00, Autographing: Sat 14:00 (Autographing), Hall 2 Autographs (RSCC)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Woven Scarf in Progress


It's far from perfect, but I still like it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blah


I'm back, after a rather more inconvenient trip home than my very easy one out. Flying East always seems to go more smoothly than flying West.

I haven't been able to get myself going today. While I enjoyed Mythcon a great deal (and have already registered for next year in Berkeley), the hotel was horrendous. I was allergic to something in the AC, and the bed was too soft for me, and they didn't have an espresso machine so I had to take the hotel shuttle to Starbucks to get my brain in gear each morning -- the shuttle folks were very nice about this, but it was still a hassle -- and there was, I swear, not one comfortable chair in the entire place. The wifi in my room was erratic. The laundry I delivered to the front desk the first morning (getting everything into carry-on was predicated on being able to do laundry) was never picked up, so I had to do the laundry myself, and the front desk was out of laundry soap, so I had to buy some. At least they had a small laundromat onsite and the machines worked, although someone else doing a load told me the hotel staff had warned her not to run both dryers at once.

There were also bizarre issues like my housekeeping tip being apparently stolen out of the room the first day, vanishing hours before any housekeeping was done, and the fact that two of us in my hallway returned from evening programming to find washcloths wrapped around our outside doorknobs, while the people across from me found their door open, although nothing was missing. The front desk staff had no interest in any of this. Someone Googled the hotel and learned that it has a reputation for theft, and while there may have been some perfectly logical and harmless explanation for the little strangenesses, I found myself on edge. (One of the conference attendees was indeed robbed, but I think she may have been staying at another hotel.)

You get the idea. Travel's tiring, and so's being ill at ease in a strange place. (One of the shuttle drivers told me the Reno Aces stay at that hotel when they're in Albuquerque. Gary's response to this was, "Yeah, that's how they know they aren't the majors.") I think it's a testament to my exercise regimen and my chiropractor that my back held up during all of this, but I'm still a lot more worn out and fuzzy-brained today than I usually am after a trip. Maybe it's dehydration. Maybe it's my age showing. Whatever it is, I have no energy -- although I did exercise for an hour -- and I've gotten no writing done yet today.

Yeah, I know. Okay, Susan. Stop whining. Go write!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Extended Metaphor


Greetings from sweltering Albuquerque, where the locals are praying for rain and those of us staying at this hotel are praying for reliable wifi (which I think I've finally found in a public area) and decent coffee (the acquisition of which required a hotel shuttle ride to a Starbucks this morning). The conference is great; the hotel's more than a little wonky.

I've been doing some knitting here -- finished a pair of socks for Gary's mom -- but I miss weaving, as much for its psychological and cultural resonance as for its physical pleasures. Weaving's been a very potent symbol since people started doing it, of course, so my thoughts on this subject probably aren't remotely original, but I wanted to get them down anyway.

My novice understanding of weaving, or at least of the weaving I've been doing, is that a cut or broken weft thread is no big deal: you just use another piece of weft and keep going. In fact, the fabric's more interesting the more varied the weft is. But if one of your warp threads breaks or is cut, you're in big trouble, because that's the structure that holds everything else together.

On an individual level, the weft is the variety of our life: the different things we do, the different places we go, our varied friendships. The warp would be whatever we consider our bedrock, the things it would be crisis to lose. For some people, that means job or career; for others, it means social status; for most of us, it includes both our core beliefs and our most significant relationships.

On a larger level, the weft is the huge diversity of life and cultures through time; the warp is God, gravity, thermodynamics, whatever we think of as the glue that holds everything together.

Often, though, we don't think about the glue. In weaving, there's a style -- often seen in rugs and tapestries -- called weft-faced weaving,, where the weft is so closely packed together that you can't see the warp threads at all. This would correspond to a life or creation so full of day-to-day processes and routines that the warp -- the underlying structure or ordering principles -- never gets thought about, and effectively becomes invisible.

We become aware of the warp in two circumstances; either when a warp thread breaks (when we lose one of our foundations) or when the weft thins out, becoming less densely packed and revealing the underlying structure.

In chaplaincy, it's axiomatic that people facing The Big Stuff -- disease, disability, death -- are usually engaged in some kind of theological reflection (even if they don't recognize it as such) and welcome company and guidance. The Big Stuff, losing your health or your mobility, or facing the end of your life, or watching a loved one die, can feel like the breaking of a warp thread. Everything's falling apart. A good chaplain (or any other friend or advisor) can try to help the person re-envision this: No, your warp threads are still there, but you have to work with different weft now.

That quintessential chaplain's question, "So how are you getting through this?" asks the person to examine and name warp threads: friends, family, faith, whatever. The warp is what keeps us going, what allows us to continue into the future, or to imagine a future at all.

Hospital patients also engage in theological reflection, though, because they're lying flat on their backs and, often, have so little else to do. Their daily routines are temporarily absent. They aren't going to work or school, doing housework or gardening, chatting (as much) with friends. In other words, their weft threads have thinned out to the point where they start asking, "Hey, so what're those other things under there?" For some people, illness is the first opportunity they've had or taken for this kind of exploration, for the examination of their lives' deep structure.

That's as far as I've gotten with the metaphor, and people who know more about weaving than I do can probably say more about how one repairs broken warp threads. But I do think this metaphor shows why weaving has always been such a powerful image.

Thoughts, anyone?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

O. M. G.


Facebook: The Non-Essential Information Superhighway.

On the one hand, I now get what this is about. As I said on Facebook itself, it's the internet version of crack cocaine. In less than twenty-four hours, I've accumulated more friends than I have followers here on the blog, and I've reconnected with three old friends I haven't spoken to in decades. I also found someone (whom I haven't friended yet) whose friend list includes basically my entire high school class, including the guy who used to molest girls in band class by trying to stick his drumstick between their legs. That's a completely literal description, and it happened multiple times each class period. We later heard he was doing prison time for rape. I guess he's out now. I hope he's acquired some new hobbies.

Also, I've had some interesting mini-conversations with people. Facebook is fun. New items from friends pop up almost literally every second; you could spend all day there.

That's also the problem.

As I also said on Facebook itself, being there is a bit like standing on a skateboard in the middle of a freeway during rush hour. Everything's moving so quickly that you can't possibly keep up. Whoosh friend #17 has posted a link to a political article and whoosh friend #32 has posted a link to a funny YouTube video, and by the time you watch the YouTube video and come back, seventeen more people have posted and someone's sent you a message and someone you've never heard of wants to be your friend and whoosh friend #47's agonizing over which shoes to wear today and whoosh look at this gorgeous photo friend #4 just took and by the time you're done "liking" that and posting a comment about it, twenty-three more people have posted and . . . .

There's no downtime in this medium. There's no space for reflection. And status updates are limited to 400-ish characters, so you couldn't indulge in narrative complexity even if you wanted to.

No wonder so many of my students have the attention spans of ritalin-deprived fruitflies.

I spent entirely too much time on Facebook yesterday, and need to be much more self-disciplined today. I keep telling myself that I've gotten along just fine, for years, without minute-by-minute updates of who just bought orange juice and who's about to leave for a trip to Yosemite and whose kid just hit a homer in a Little League game.

But I'm also feeling more connected to a lot of people, including my old SF community in New York, than I have in a long time. So there really is an upside.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peer Pressure


I have finally, God help me, cracked and joined Facebook. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the thing, but I got tired of being inundated with invitations, plus my sister and cousin are on it now, so it may be useful to stay in touch with them.

If you're on Facebook and would like to friend me, go ahead.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My Very Own Zoo


Because our weather's been so nice, I've been spending hours every day sitting in the shade on our deck, writing and weaving and knitting. This is more deck time than I've done before, and it's made me very attuned to the wildlife in our yard.

We have finches and quail, of course, as always, and this time of year, we have quail chicks, who are very cute. We have doves. At one point we had quite a lot of pretty yellow butterflies, although I haven't seen any for a few days. We have rabbits: evidently there's a warren in one corner of our large and messy backyard, and last week I saw either three bunnies or one bunny three times. My gardener friends would consider this a catastrophe, but I don't garden and I love rabbits, and I'm happy that they love our messy yard.

On Sunday, a friend and former student -- a student from my very first semester at UNR, in fact -- stopped by with her little boy, who's fourteen months old and very cute. They were down for the weekend from Portland, where she and her husband live now, so I hadn't met the baby before. While the rest of us ate Gary's homemade scones and fruit salad, Will conducted experiments with gravity and grapes, and had a fine time.

At one point, his mother glanced up at the ugly power lines running along our yard and said, "Hey, look, a hawk." Sure enough, a red-tailed hawk was perched on the power pole, being harassed by a much smaller bird who did pendulum passes past the hawk.

"The hawk has a bunch of feathers in its mouth," said Pam, who has much better eyes than I do.

"I bet it ate a baby bird and the mother's trying to drive the hawk away from the nest," I said.

"Who knew that our backyard was a nature special?" said Gary.

Our yard is notably unlovely, dirt and weeds, although there are a few clumps of pretty flowering peavine. We're on a third of an acre, and a fair amount of that is a Sierra Pacific easement -- remember the power lines? -- so between the prohibitive cost of landscaping and the fact that the power company has the right to come in and tear up anything we put in, we've left it alone. The patches of weeds spread out every year, and I'm enjoying the process of watching the yard turn into a meadow. I suspect this is also why critters like our yard.

Before too long, though, most of the weeds will be gone. We're getting into fire season -- there have already been wildfires near here -- and every year when the weeds start to dry out, Gary tears them up to reduce the amount of flammable material and create a defensible zone around the house. (To our relief and pleasure, the current weeds don't seem to be cheatgrass, an invasive species that's extremely flammable, and that we battled for quite a few years.)

I'm grateful for Gary's hard work tearing up the weeds, but I'll miss our meadow, and I hope the bunnies will still like it here when the cover's gone.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Advancing the Warp, Part 1


So here's the scarf freed of the bottom notches in the cardboard, with ends tied off to compensate. As you can see, the scarf gets narrower further up -- I tried to prevent that, to no avail. It's a crooked little scarf, but it's my crooked little scarf, and I'll wear it happily when I finish it.

Advancing the Warp, Part 2


Here's the warp held (reasonably) taut by the chip clip. I use a thick wooden ruler to adjust tension when I need to. I gotta say, although this Rube Goldberg loom is working, working on it's a bit like trying to build a car with my teeth. After this project's done, I'm getting a real -- but inexpensive -- loom!

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Scarf So Far


It's a little rough around the edges, but I'm having great fun with it, and in general, I'm pleased.

I'm going to sign up for our art museum's two-day course in tapestry weaving, in September. That should help with edges!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

New Column


I have a new Bodily Blessings column up; this one's about my ambivalence about the musical culture of churches.

In less happy news, BLR rejected the sonnets -- sniff -- so I have to figure out where to send them next. I'm pretty clueless about poetry markets, so I have to do some research, but I probably won't get to it until I get back from Albuquerque.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Warp Thirty, Mr. Sulu


Here's the warped loom, finally (although, as you can see, I haven't gotten much actual weaving done yet). Today would have been Mom's 86th birthday, and in her honor, I decided to spend extra time on handicrafts today. As far as I know, weaving's one of the few she never tried, but I think she would have been fascinated.