Posts Tagged ‘Blog’

You can blame Nick Harkaway – or rather, his thoughts on waterboarding – for this post, which began life as a comment on his blog. So: my thoughts on the subject of simulated torture.

“Simulated drowning” makes the whole question of waterboarding sound like a question of virtual reality. Which is intriguing.

Say someone developed a perfect VR machine and plugged in a suspected terrorist without that person’s knowledge. For days, weeks or hours, the suspect undergoes what they believe to be excruciating physical torture, when in fact it’s all just skillful, pain-and-sensory simulated VR. Having subsequently divulged their information or, if innocent, made up enough to satisfy their captors, they are then unplugged, waking – disoriented and frightened – to find themselves whole and strapped to a table, their flesh undamaged.

Which begs the question: in this hypothetical instance, has the Geneva Convention actually been violated? Given the fact of psychological torture, one would think so, because the intent was the same as if actual torture had been employed, a sort of Orwellian examination of the limits of human endurance. Which would, by inference, suggest that simulated drowning, despite the name, cannot be differentiated from torture, the entire point of which is not to kill, but to extract information under threat of pain and the fear of more to come. How anyone can believe waterboarding doesn’t fall into this category is beyond me; but if a VR torture chamber were invented, would anyone condone its use as a more ‘moral’ alternative to conventional torture purely on the basis that no physical harm was done?

The thought of people responding in the affirmative frightens me.

Inspired by Proposition 8, my latest column over at Halo 17, The Case for Gay Marriage, is up. Check it out and dig the politics!

Dropping by Neil Gaiman’s blog, I found a link to this article about writers and their cats. Being both a writer and a devout cat nerd (such that if I wasn’t married, and never married, I would inevitably end up in a ricky old house, talking to myself and potting geraniums in odd gumboots while one of my seventeen cats dissected a mouse on the landing; and even so, it’s still not an altogether unlikely future scenario), I was very much drawn to the idea of cats as a totem animal for writers. Their cynical expressions, come-as-I-please mentality and blythe acrobatics are qualities which lend themselves to favourable anthropomorphisation, because they all translate, more or less, into Things We Think Are Awesome. Call it the Greebo Effect: the contradictory tendency of cat owners to perceive their pets as adorable balls of joy while simultaneously envying their cool-kid machismo. Dogs just can’t compete.

Personally, I have two cats. I’ve taken pains not to blog about them here, because – to my shame – the subject turns me into a grinning, anecdote-spouting moron with all the repetitive tedium of a Kevin Costner romance. And it’s not just me, as explained by this excellent xkcd comic on cat proximity. We’re all susceptible. Combine this effect with writerness, and the whole thing just explodes in a goopy word-syrup palateable only to other sufferers.

Which is why cat people seek each other out. It’s hard to have a conversation about the dead bird in the laundry with someone who just doesn’t care, because right when you get to the interesting bit, it turns out they walked off five minutes ago and you’ve been regaling a potplant. Bastards.

The Writer’s Prayer

Posted: November 10, 2008 in Ink & Feather
Tags: , , , ,

I’m a bit adrift in words right now: I’m halfway through what I suspect will be a very long (and, hopefully, very good) Halo column and nearly finished fixing the biggest fixable bit of my novel, with two end-of-semester uni paper-thingies thrown in to boot (most shocking of all, I actually want to write them). I also feel like I’ve got about two years’ worth of poetry chunked up somewhere like gunk in a spigot, and damned if I’m not going to get drunk at some point soonish, sit down in front of a keyboard and let the words ring out like a volley of dropped nails until I can think without borrowing from older, better writers. Until then, however, here’s a poem I wrote back around highschool, when I waxed most lyrical most often, and which kinda reflects my current state. So:

The Writer’s Prayer

our brain which art

commemorates, hallowed

be thy form! (a kingdom

come to earth) my will be done

in varied media: give us this day our

eyes, tongue, fingers, throat; forgive

us our songs, who cannot sing a note; lead roundly

into temptation/tempestuous passion

and avow

that we shall know some small evil. yours is the how/

why/ever/when; the dream and the dreamless dark –

amen!

I was in a fey mood last night, but ‘fey’ didn’t quite seem to cover it. Burdened with the need to update my Facebook status accurately and appropriately, I scanned my knowledge of the English language for a suitable adjective – fruitlessly. Finally, after many minutes of struggle, I put on my thinking boots and invented a new word: mnemencholy, derived from mneme (memory) and melancholy (sadness). Content at last, I slept.

On waking, I discovered that the illustrious Nick Harkaway, that well-known Englishman and little-known lexicographer, had already found my word and proceeded to blog a better definition for mnemencholia than I could possibly articulate. I am therefore stealing it; or rather, approving it for future usage. So, for those who are interested, mnemencholia (from mnemencholy) now officially means:

“Nostalgic sorrow brought on by recollection; melancholia triggered by an object, phrase, or scent and its associated memories; the wide sense of understanding and regret rising from the apprehension of one’s own history.”

Awesome.

I love the idea of neologisms. Above any other quirk, I cherish the malleability of the English language. It rewards linguistic creativity, and, indeed, encourages it. There’s something profoundly satisfying in creating or stumbling on a new term, particularly if we find it clever, or funny, or apt, or (especially) all three. I love that crazy, screwball, onomatopoeic slang like woot and clusterfuck can breed successfully in darkness, like forest mushrooms. I love that Shakespeare has left us with Shylock and seachange; that A. A. Milne gave us heffalump, tigger and wol; that crazy British aristocrats gave us sandwich, sundowner and pukka while equally crazy Londoners gave us yob and Cockney rhyming slang. I love that tactile imagery like whale tail, muffin top and bridezilla made their way to the dictionary, while gribblies, grock and meme are increasingly of the now.

What I don’t like, however, is corporate jargon. I shudder at every mention of swings and roundabouts, blue sky thinking, synergistics, action items or actioning tasks. Some people might (and, indeed, have) called that hypocritical, but the difference is one of joy and functionality. Corporate jargon doesn’t delight in itself. It isn’t clever, nor do buzzwords become popular because people enjoy their use. Rather, they become awkward, mechanical mainstays, often more cumbersome and less helpful than the plain language they replace. Technical jargon, in its proper sense, means words that are part of a specialised vocabularly, as in the medical, legal and IT professions, but this is not true of corporate jargon. It obfuscates, generalises, hinders. Many terms grow, not from playful creativity, but uncorrected malapropisms. Whereas slang is viral in the digital sense, passing rapidly by word of mouth through a series of enthusiastic adapters, corporate jargon is a virus in the medical sense, infiltrating healthy cells and using them to manufacture new infections, which then spread through a mixture of force, proximity and submission. Cliches, at least, began as sturdy concepts: their very effectiveness lead to overfamiliarity, like playing a favourite song so frequently that it becomes unbearable. The best mutate into aphorisms. Not so corporate jargon, which is propagated purely on the basis of necessity, and not effectiveness.   

In short, good language is just another way of thinking clearly, or creatively, or at all. Like all new things, neologisms need to be tested, experimented with, tried on – our choice of slang is just as relevant to our personalities as our taste in clothes, films or music, and yet, quite often, we fail to even make a conscious decision about the words we use, or the circumstances under which we use them. Language, it’s been said, is the most singular achievement of our species, and even without an alphabet, it’s still something unbelievably special.

So don’t take your speech for granted. Read up on collective nouns (they’re pretty awesome); put old words into new contexts; watch Joss Whedon shows; read Scott Westerfeld or Shakespeare or Kaz Cooke or Geoffrey McSkimming or anyone at all; think. But more than that, have fun.

It’s what words are for.

Indeedy-do: my new column is up at Halo 17. This one’s on sex education.

Have fun, kiddiwinks!

In keeping this blog, I’ve had a few weird search engine terms crop up. Questions like things to draw for mom (why not a pony?) and is marriage about love or pragmatism (depends on the person) at least represent coherent thoughts, while lollies for cartoon cake and transform lizardman- calibur are markdly more abstract. Still, I can at least picture the kind of person who types these things into Google.

But someone who looks for peaches geldof deformed arm children?

Yikes.

Yes, it’s that time again – my latest article, Life After Rowling, is now up at Halo 17. Knock yourselves out.

Also, awesome sidenote: Nick Harkaway blogged about me last week. Shiny!

There’s been somewhat of an unscheduled hiatus this week, for which I apologise. Regrettably, the real world has a tendency to impinge upon the literary state, although ironically, the impingements have themselves been of a literary nature, with essays, column deadlines and writer’s block coming into confluence with my husband’s birthday, our first wedding anniversary, university dinners (read: tapas and wine, followed by after hours vodka on the Old Quad roof) and other such abundantly pleasant and necessary distractions. Also, and I say this with feeling, it has been virtually impossible to write about the American election, which constitutes most of what I’ve wanted to write about. One can only gnash one’s teeth about Sarah Palin, bailouts and Republican idiocy for so long before the urge to start prophecying the End Times triggers a failsafe reflex, viz: Get The Hell Away From The Keyboard Before Prising Up The Space-Bar And Doing Yourself A Mischief.

With that in mind, I’ll probably be back to normal sometime in the coming week. Anyone distressed by this prospect should breathe deeply into a paper bag, making sure to exhale slowly.

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on its conclusions, but when I saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the accepted schedule is to fall in love first and maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and only then falling in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well, cold to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural, moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children could enter the picture. It was how families made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that love will be enough, that any deliberate thought of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes – not love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations, becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering if such high standards actually reflect a desire, however unconscious, to make pragmatic – and not purely romantic – matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents warn of the other extreme: marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love, and that if it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen. Beyond the fact of narrative quality, Pride and Prejudice is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it, we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.